Camels up close and personal!!
12.24.2012 - 12.24.2012
Monday, December 24, 2012
It’s Christmas Eve and what better way to celebrate than by going to a camel festival! Al Dhafra Festival is in its sixth year and is located in the Western Region just outside Liwa. Sheikh Zayed was originally the sheikh of the Western Region before he was Sheikh of Abu Dhabi and Ruler of the UAE. The festival features camel races, a camel beauty competition, falcon competitions and date packaging competitions. This should be interesting.
The morning has dawned extremely foggy so that our drive out is not very scenic. Chaz says that sometimes the fog is so thick in the mornings cars will just pull off to the side of the road to wait it out. I just would not have associated fog with the desert!
Typical UAE directions on the festival website are very vague and googlemaps has not heard of any of the city markings. Patti West had visited the festival a year ago with a women’s group she belongs to. On the drive out by bus she had written down turns and landmarks so she could take her family back there. She graciously allowed me to copy them down and we use them to navigate. It’s about an hour and a half drive and as we get closer there are large distinct posters guiding our way. The fog has burned off and we’re definitely in the desert – rolling dunes surround us in a monochromatic landscape of copper browns and beiges.
As we drive up the long approach road to the festival, one side is lined with small huts with lots of what looks like household items for sale and a few with coffee, juice and food items.
We keep driving and see an area marked Traditional Souk. We park and head into wide walkways lined with shops where women are selling incense and souvenirs. Many of the shops have long glittery pieces of material and we realize that these are used to drape the camel’s back and head. One woman stops me and demonstrates the small cup for burning incense and I buy the cup with 4 small cubes of incense for AED 20 or about $6.00, which I give to Chandler. She allows me to take her picture and then invites me into her tent to see black and white pictures hanging from the walls which are more scarves than walls. The pictures are of the area 50 years ago and several of Sheikh Zayed and other sheikhs. She tells me a tourist bought one of the pictures from her for AED 1000. Hopefully, an exaggeration for old black and white photographs!
We get back in the car and head for the top of another dune with signs that say Camel Auction. We follow the road and here there are hundreds of camels on either side of the road. Some are being driven down the road, others are staked or hobbled on the side of the road, others in small paddocks. There are tents set up with men squatting outside. We stop at one point and all jump out and Chandler and I pose in front of a man riding one camel with a few camels following and Chaz snaps our picture.
Large SUVs are cruising by and when they stop the camel handlers put their camels through their paces of slowly lowering down on their knees and back up. There are three colors of camels, black, brown and white. I’ve read that there are basically three breeds that are featured here as well. There are small calves with their umbilical cords still hanging leaning on their mother’s sides. The camels seem to follow each other like sheep but occasionally one will stray and the handler’s raise their sticks and holler at them to herd them in the right direction. Sometimes there’s a man walking in front and an SUV is in back of the group honking his horn to keep them in line. Some men are friendly and nod at us, shouting “As-salaam ‘alaykum” which means, Peace be upon you. Chaz responds with the proper greeting, “Wa ’alaykum salaam” or Upon you be peace.
The camels are certainly not beautiful to me. With their heads thrust forward at the end of their long necks, they remind me of ostriches. Many have long lower lips that are filled with froth. Their legs are spindly and their normal stance has them splayed out from the knees. Their feet are huge and unnatural looking at the end of their skinny legs. The riders sit behind the hump and actually look as if they are comfortable loping along.
After driving a while we follow another road up to what looks like might be a stadium and the signs indicate “Camel Beauty Competition.” Now that’s an oxymoron!! After parking we note the area is encircled by large barriers and metal grates. We walk by one marked Police but the men gesture to us to enter and to follow the barriers around to the entrance to the viewing stands. When we emerge we see the stands are made up of large gold embroidered oversize chairs. We think we’re in a private viewing box until we notice all the seats are this way. A young man in traditional dress approaches us and says, Would you like to go down? We look down and see large paddocks fenced off with camels milling about. We eagerly say yes and he escorts us down to the paddocks to a large area between the paddocks where he answers our questions and explains what is going on. There are five or six judges milling about and each owner brings out his best camel from the paddocks into the center area until there are about nine or ten camels in the center paddock. Today they are judging the black camels called mujahim. I like them the best as they don’t have the long lower slobbery lip. The owners shout at their camels to try to get them to look up and strike their best pose. The people in the stand are also shouting and beating on the metal stands. It was really wild.
Our guide is from Abu Dhabi and has just finished his first semester at Oregon State where he is studying mechanical engineering. He also took an English program at Georgia Tech. He tells us he is home for the Christmas holidays and is a volunteer guide for the festival. He is very patient and knowledgeable. We learn that the camels cost anywhere from half a million to a million dirhams. There is a fleet of SUVs parked nearby that he says are prizes for the first, second and third place winners in each category. The top prize winner will get a million dirhams. Wow, I guess this is a lot like showing horses or dogs. These are the cream of the crop.
We ask him where we can get a bite to eat and he directs us back to the Traditional Souk where we choose rice and chicken in metal trays and enjoy a meal out of the sun. On this round through the souk we find the date packaging exhibit and wander through, sampling dates. It’s a nice sweet after our lunch.
We drive by the camel race track - there is not a race today. It's very, very large. The camels are controlled by remote control. They have a device on them similar to a robot that has arms that can control the whip and the reins. The owners drive along side the camel controlling the robot. Small children and even monkeys were used in the past, but came under criticism from human and animal rights' activists which led to the development of the robots.
One final drive around and we head back to Abu Dhabi. We’ve invited KK and Abdullah over for dinner tonight. They are the top two managers that work for Chaz. However, Abdullah calls during our drive to say that something has come up and he is unable to come. Back at the apartment, we rest then cook before KK’s arrival at 6:15. He is from India and has worked in safety for over 26 years. He has been on project here for five years. He has had six managers in Chaz’s position on this project. He and Chaz get along very well and he tells us that when Chaz leaves he will also leave because Chaz has been his best manager ever!! What a compliment. He seems to enjoy the dinner and it’s nice to get to know another one of Chaz’s co-workers. I forget to take a picture, though! Bummer!!
Chaz goes back to work tomorrow – yes, no holiday for Christmas here! So we’re off to bed early tonight.