Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Tour de France Sex Romp

All manner of books (histories, memoirs, travelogues, novels) have been written about The Tour de France, including a vast number of books written by enthusiasts experiencing The Tour for the first time. In 1999  Freya North contributed a book in a category of its own--a romance novel, "Cat," that is part-fem porn and part-account of the exhilaration of witnessing The Tour for the first time. 

The book takes its title from its lead character, a twenty-eight year old British woman with a high sex drive, who has recently broken up with her boy friend of several years.  He introduced her to bicycle racing.  She became such a devotee of the sport that she named her two gold fish Djamolidine and Abdoujaporuv, after the notorious Uzbekistan sprinter known as the Tashkent Terror.  She thinks Tour commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen ought to have their own TV series or run for Parliament.  She has just landed the dream assignment of covering The Tour for The Guardian.  Though she's working as a journalist, she has to remember to be serious about her job and not be the adoring fan that she is.

The book may be centered around The Tour, but from the very start it is established that sex will be the book's prevailing theme.  Before she leaves for France she is warned to be careful of going to the land of Alain Delon and Roger Vadim and being amongst all the racers, as "all that friction against the chamois lining of their shorts must make 'em horny bastards."

Amongst the racers her eyes are helplessly drawn to the bulges in their pants, just like the girl friend of one of the racers whose bulge is described as a "magnificent sunburst" that she was "hot for."  He was big in all respects--"his baritone voice, his legendary thighs, his hands, his nose; they all complemented the biggest treat of all, currently concealed, but far from hidden behind his shorts."

Cat has a hard time falling asleep her first night at The Tour staying at the hotel of one of the teams.  She has the deluded hope that a racer will come knock on her door.  That doesn't happen until a few nights later, but it is a team doctor. She's not disappointed at all, as she has lusted after him as well.  Though they go at each other with abandon, the doctor pulls away after several minutes and backs out of the room without going beyond kissing and groping, leaving Cat even more lustful, throbbing and on fire.  

Cat isn't the only woman with sex on her mind.  So does Rachel, the female soigneur of one of the teams.  Her star rider delights her with a surprise smooch after a massage.  She wants more, but he doesn't follow up with it. It is all she can do not to join him in his s alt and vinegar bath. When she decides he may not be the one for her, she takes up with the mechanic of her team's chief rival, which has her bosses questioning her loyalty.

Surprisingly, the podium girls are left out of it, other than Cat catching one of them leaving the hotel room of her doctor boy friend.  She is instantly infuriated and turns away from his room and won't respond to his calls even though she desperately wants him.  It takes a couple of days before she learns that the podium girl had just gone to him for treatment of conjunctivitis.  They resume their bedroom antics until the doctor hears from a journalist that Cat has a boy friend back home, as she had fibbed to the journalist so he wouldn't come on to her.  Cat suffers a couple of days of rejected agony until she can straighten the doctor out.  And then they fling themselves at each other with even greater passion.

There is a bicycle race going on, but that is secondary to all the sexcapes.  Cat acknowledges she isn't  "so much on the Tour de France, as in a Louis Malle film."  Once when Cat and Rachel are discussing the day's stage, Rachel comments, "Enough about work.  Let's talk about boys." Cat manages to file a daily story in spite of her preoccupation with the opposite sex.  Real life riders are among the book's peloton, though fictional riders are allowed the greatest glory.  Still, Tyler Hamilton manages to spend a spell in Yellow and Jonathan Vaughters likewise in the polka dot jersey.  David Millar and Stuart O'Grady both win a stage.  The author researched the book following the 1998 Tour with press credentials, as she was a legitimate writer having previously written three other romance novels--with similar titles of a woman's first name.  The 1998 Tour was marred by the Festina scandal.  There are no drug scandals in this book, though the subject of drugs is not ignored.  One rider admits, "When I first took EPO my kidneys felt like balloons full of water bashing the base of my back.  My vision went queer, my joints hurt, I'd get nose bleeds...but soon enough it was like waking in a new land.  I wanted to train hard, I could ride with reduced suffering and I recovered quickly.  What a drug."

In her acknowledgement of those who helped her with her research and gave her time during The Tour, North thanks many of the English-speaking riders, including Hamilton, Vaughters, Millar and O'Grady.  She also thanks George Hincapie.  In the novel he is described as "yummy" by Cat's sister when she comes to The Tour in the last week, and adds, "I'll do him."

Lance Armstrong did not ride in the 1998 Tour and he does not ride in this Tour either.  The explanation is given that his wife is having a baby, one of the few instances of North using a not entirely credible plot device.  That would hardly deter a racer of riding The Tour.  She does allow Armstrong to win the World Championship after The Tour.

There are three made-up teams (Systeme Vipere, Zucca MV and US Megapac) that provide the main protagonists of the race, to go along with actual teams (US Postal, Baneseto, Telekom, Saeco, Kelme and a few others, but not Festina).

North has clearly read a history or two of The Tour and incorporates dollops of Tour lore into her story as well as legendary incidents from the history of the sport, though not necessarily with full legitimacy.   It is a cold day when the peloton tackles L'Alpe d'Huez.  North earns a point for spelling it with the French honorific capital "L."  But she loses a point for having a rider piss on his hands because they are so cold.  This has happened on at least one brutally cold stage of the Giro, but couldn't possibly happen on L'Alpe d'Huez in July with fans packing the route and the team cars being prepared for such conditions.  Earlier Cat flabbergasts her sisters telling them that racers pee on their bikes--"They just whip it out," she explains. Even more shocking is the rider who has shit oozing down his legs, suffering from dysentery, but riding on--something Greg LeMond once did during The Tour.

North adds some sex flourishes that she may have dreamt up herself. The female soigneur enlists Cat  and her sisters to help her wrap the team's snacks they will be given during the race in pages torn from a heap of pornographic magazines to cheer them up after a hard stage rather than in the usual aluminum foil.  Since the novel is largely written from the female perspective, she doesn't describe the  riders' reaction when they unravel their snacks.  It wasn't the first instance of porno in the book.  Earlier riders were using it to masturbate.  Masturbation is explained as being preferable to sex for the riders as "no energy is thrown away on pleasuring anyone but himself."

Cat's uncle is watching The Tour for the first time on television back in Great Britain.  He calls Cat on occasion to see how she is doing and to have The Race explained to him.  He tells Cat that Liggett was talking about whores, not familiar with the term "hors categorie" for climbs that are so extreme that they are beyond the normal rating system of one to four.

Not only is the book sex-laden but it is profanity-laden as well.  Hardly a page passes without the f-word or its milder English cousin--"bloody."  The book offers a lesson in English lingo.  The b's are well-represented--bloody, bollocks, bloke, bugger and blimey.  Romance novels, even those as well-written as this with such delightful wordplay as "pain of pelting up peaks for points," don't interest me enough to read any of her other books to see if they equally abound with profanity or if that was how North wished to portray the world of bike racing, though Cat's tongue was as saucy as anyone's.  

The book does not demean The Tour in any way.  North was careful not to imply the prevalence of drugs or too belittle Cat's blind love of The Race, which she seems to share herself.  The final line of the book is a sincere "Vive Le Tour."

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sharjah, UAE

The UAE is such a safe zone that my Warmshowers host does not lock his apartment door.  It makes it easy for his many touring cyclist guests to come and go without the need of dealing with locks.  He was off for the weekend in Bahrain with his girl friend when I arrived at his apartment wrapping up my travels, so I could walk right on in and make myself at home, just as I had when I flew into Dubai a month ago.

Scott is a touring cyclist himself when he gets time off from his job teaching at an Australian school in Sharjah, right next door to Dubai.  With all the good karma he is accumulating from hosting touring cyclists he can count on a lifetime of tailwinds. Within twenty-four hours of my arrival two other cyclists pulled in fresh off the ferry from Iran, a young German and an older Portuguese, both traveling independently.  During my previous stay, I shared his quarters with a young man from Hong Kong.  All had been on the road for at least six months and had months ahead of them.  They all brought a warm glow of contentment to the apartment.  It was no wonder Scott has provided a haven for such souls.

I had a day-and-a-half wait for my flight home.  I took advantage of it to visit a few of the places I had missed at the start of my trip during the first two stages of the Dubai Tour.  I was curious if the traffic would seem less daunting after quite a few doses if it in Muscat and Abu Dhabi.  I didn't have to resort to my GPS device as often as I did a month ago, but the unrelenting traffic was still as much of a menace as it had been.  Two ex-pat teachers had been killed a week ago on their bikes.  Scott said it was not a rare event.

I was drawn once again to the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. I hadn't had the time to give it a close look a month ago, as I was to preoccupied with the bike race.  I had tried to swing by it but was thwarted by the superhighway system.  Once I managed to get on the right road, which was not the easiest task, I found myself at its very entry, lined with spouting jets of water.

A monstrous, ungodly lake of water, that could have been the world's largest swimming pool if swimming in it was permitted, matched its excessive height on its backside, defying the region's natural desert state.  If the tower was a monumental middle digital to the fates that had made this as impoverished desert until the discovery of oil just a few decades ago, this body of water was more of the same.

Ostentatious villa restaurants and shops and accommodations surrounded it, companion pieces to the nearby luxurious Dubai Mall , further flaunting the oil riches of the Emirates.  One had to strain one's neck to look up at the Burj and strain not to gag as one tried to wrap their mind around all this.  One could be impressed or depressed at this flagrant grandiosity. Still infused with the peace and calm of all my time in the simple grandeur of the desert, I was suffering a severe case of culture shock.

My final campsite the night before had been in an abandoned campground of palm frond partitions for motorists.  It was too rustic to have succeeded.  It came just before the sprawl of Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman with oil refineries nearby. Just as I was setting up my tent in the dusk I was surprised by a couple of young men, Bengalis they said.  Anywhere else I would have been concerned that I had been discovered and that I ought to camp elsewhere or push on the final twenty-five miles to Scott's refuge. But they were friendly and nonthreatening.  They said they lived just behind the encampment.  A little while later they returned with a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Sharjah calls itself the cultural center of the UAE.  It has a large complex of art galleries exhibiting local as well as international artists, both living and dead.  I spent a couple of hours wandering amongst them.  The highlight was a thirty-three minute video on the Strait of Hormuz, just twenty-three miles wide, that separates Iran from Oman.  It has become a major shipping lane as well as a major passage for small boats trafficking in licit and illicit goods such as tobacco and alcohol and oil going to Iran.  The traffic has greatly intensified in the past few years, severely damaging the fishing that had been the livelihood for many for centuries.

Just beyond the Art Center was the quite extensive Museum of Islamic Civilization.  Gandhi had once been asked what he thought of Western Civilization.  He said he was in favor of it.  He might have said the same of this museum.  It was intent on demonstrating how far ahead of the West the Islamic world had been.  A time line claimed a Muslim was the first to attempt flight with a glider off a tower in 875.  The Islamic world first used a windmill in 634, well ahead of Europe's first in 1180.  Optics dates to 965 in the Islamic world, while the first mention of glasses in the rest of the world came in at Italian manuscript in 1289.  The Chinese may have invented gun powder, but Arabia found new uses for it.  The Islamic world was also at the forefront of astronomy with the first observatory outside Baghdad in 828.  Muslims were concerned about time so they could be precise in when they engaged in their five daily prayers.

One of the main galleries was devoted to explaining their religion, calling it the fastest growing religion in the world, embraced by twenty per cent of the world's population.  There were quite a few videos and photos of the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the essentials of the religion.  Millions undertake it every year.  The central mosque in Mecca has the capacity for one million worshippers on five levels, two of which are below ground.  It is such a spectacle it is almost enough to make one convert to the religion to be able to part of this monumental event.  One has to be granted certification to come to Saudi Arabia to participate.  A huge tent city is erected to accommodate the millions.  It is a several day event with many rituals.  Pilgrims flying in must put on certain vestments even before their planes land.  They must pick up stones and toss them at a holy obelisk and circle a huge rock seven times.  The aerial view of the masses engaged in the pilgrimage dwarfed anything Hollywood could produce.  

I would have spent longer than the two hours I did in the museum if the air conditioning hadn't been so frigid.  It was a good wrap-up to my time in the Islamic world.  In my last visit to Morocco I was told on several occasions that I would make a good Muslim.  They weren't proselytizing by any means, more words of praise and kindliness.   But there was none of that here.  People showed their respect and hospitality in countless other ways.  As always it has been a noteworthy journey.  I saw much, but there is plenty more to entice me back.  As I sit in the airport awaiting my flight gazing at all the Western-clad women with heads uncovered and baring flesh, I am already missing all the black-cloaked women mysteriously drifting along like apparitions.  

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Umm Al-Quwain, UAE

There are three distinct strata to the populations of the Emirates and Oman--the Arab nationals whose land it is, the Western advisers and workers of expertise earning double or triple of what they'd be earning in their homelands, and the third-world workforce, earning considerably more than they would in their homelands, but still not a great deal.  All three respond to me with equal levels of generosity and curiosity.  The nationals welcome me with a hospitable fervor.  The Westerners seem eager to bond with one of their background who has also been drawn to this rapidly transforming land. And the workers seem to appreciate  someone laboring on a bike under the fierce sun, as they labor away with their shovels or in some other menial chore.  All exude a genuine friendliness.  Never before has the bicycle been such a magnet of goodwill.

As I was sitting in a Starbucks taking advantage of its WIFI, a young man asked me if I was Dutch, his nationality.  He had noticed my Ortlieb panniers, which he mistakenly thought were Dutch as he had once seen them on a Dutch touring cyclist.  He was working here as an engineer and was traveling with his parents, showing them the country.

A South African, the third I've met in these travels, stopped on the highway outside of Abu Dhabi to tell me there was an alternate route to the ten-lane wide super-highway we were on a few miles ahead.  It would add quite a few miles to my route to Dubai to swing out into the desert to pick up the road, but I was in no rush and didn't object.  The instant I left the highway I was in the barren desert and had the road virtually to myself.  It was another first-rate, four-lane highway with wide shoulder.  But there were no towns nor service stations.  I was hoping there might be one when I came to the road I needed to turn on to heading east towards Dubai, but there wasn't.  Nor were there any the next fifty miles.  Since I was abiding by the local dictum to always carry twice as much food and water as you think you might need, that was not a concern.  The traffic though was a different story.  The distant road that looked so inviting on the map turned out to be a two-lane highway that was a trucker's alternative to the main highway I had been on.

The trucks were barging down the road bumper-to-bumper in both directions as if they were in a rush to safe the world.  There were wide shoulders, but the truckers took over the shoulders for extra space between their columns so they wouldn't have to pass so closely, bucking the opposing tunnels of wind they were both creating.  The ones alongside me created a draft, but it did not compensate for how closely they passed, sucking me into their current.  It was by far much, much more treacherous than any of the riding I had been subjected to here.  The South African had no idea what he had sentenced me to.  This road was actually referred to as a "Trucker's Road," so I couldn't take a break and await that spell when truckers are banned from the roads. I simply had to hang on and hope for the best.  

Luckily it lasted less than twenty miles until I turned off onto the most distant of the Ring Roads that bypass Dubai, highway 611.  It was a ridiculous twelve lanes wide and had hardly any traffic.  Signs consigning trucks to the three right lanes were hardly necessary.

It was like many of the super highways I had ridden in China a few years ago, constructed not for the present, but in anticipation of needs in the years to come.  This road was way out in the boondocks.  There was nothing but desert to my right and not much to my left. There didn't seem much need for this road, let alone a road so wide.  But with more money than the government knows what to do with, a lot of it is funneled into building more and better roads.  The city was a good ten miles or more distant.  

This was the wilderness, enabling me the ease of another superlative desert campsite in the wave of dunes just beyond the road.

The only service station along the sixty mile stretch of 611 I rode before turning off to the tiny Emirates of Ajman and Umm Al-Quwain, beyond the larger Emirates of Dubai and Sharjah, included a McDonald's.  It was the Golden Arches in the desert ahead that brought it to my attention.  The service station was well-stocked with drinks and foods, so I didn't have to resort to a Big Mac, higher-priced  than back home.  Even though I nibble on dates all day long, that doesn't deter me from date-milk.  Its not as common as chocolate and strawberry and banana milk, but its always my preference.  Not only is it tasty, but it provides the most calories.  I drank a pint, and then had another, as I are a couple of peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

After I left 611, which diminished to six-lanes after Dubai, a few miles down the four-lane wide highway to Umm Al-Quwain, a car pulled over and a smiling white-robed guy waved me down.  He introduced himself as Muhammad and said he was an Algerian who grew up in France and had bicycled around France.  He'd been living here for two years with his wife and four children working for the Alliance Francaise and invited me to his nearby home for a cup of coffee. He wanted his children to meet a touring cyclist.  

They lived in a recently-built six-story apartment building.  His young children were all tri-lingual--French, Arabic and English.  His French wife spoke perfect, accent-less English that she had learned from watching American cartoons she explained.  She brought out cookies and chocolate.  They were out of cheese, but generally had a supply, as the French Carrefour supermarket carried brands from home.  Her husband liked camel's milk, but she had not been able to develop a taste for it.  He wasn't an ardent enough of a cyclist to have his bicycle here, but he had followed The Tour de France one year in a camper.  He had a Coleman tent in the back of his car that his family used on occasion for outings into the desert.  They were a very lively and delightful family.

Muhammad said it was well worth the detour to Umm Al-Quwain, as it wasn't so developed and gave a good perspective on what the region had been like before the excessive transformation that dominates Abu Dhabi and Dubai.   For the first time I saw run-down buildings and vacant lots.  There was no spreads of glass or beds of flowers or non-indigenous vegetation being forced into the environment.  There were no outrageous architectural novelties.  No glitzy glass high-rises.  The only eye-catching buildings were a few recently constructed semi-grandiose mosques to go along with the many smaller ones every few blocks..  A long beach front had one lone cafe that offered drinks and snacks, but was mostly a water-pipe bar for smoking flavored tobacco.  

I had stumbled upon one of these in Oman.  It was filled with men and their lap tops.  This one too offered WIFI, just what I was looking for.  I could look out on the breaking waves to one side and across the street where a group of rag-tag Indian workers were playing cricket in a weed-filled lot.  This was a more traditional side of the region, though still fully flavored by the times.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Abu Dhabi, UAE

Another of the amenities that have made Oman and the UAE such a pleasure to travel is the regulation that bans trucks from the road during the morning and afternoon peak traffic hours.  I took full advantage of that this morning being on the road during that full two-hour window from 6:30 to 8:30 as I made my much dreaded entry into Abu Dhabi.  I knew that if Abu Dhabi was anything like Dubai and Muscat I was in for a blizzard of vehicles. The fewer I had to contend with the better, especially with the many exit and entry ramps the urban environment would deal me.

I had camped twenty miles from the city, as close as I dared, in a cluster of bushes that formed a barrier between the desert and the busy coastal highway connecting the UAE with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The traffic hardly let up all night, but I was so accustomed to its roar, being a part of it all day, I had no problem sleeping.  I set my alarm for the first time, rising at six a.m. before the sky had lightened.  The sun was just nudging the horizon when I hit the road at 6:30.  Even with no trucks there was still lots of traffic.  After five miles I made the turn off the four-lane coastal highway onto a six-laner towards Abu Dhabi.  It was even more thronged with traffic, but not as thick and frantic as it would be when the trucks joined the fray.  I had a wide smooth shoulder all to my self with no debris, as is the norm on this region's exemplary highway system, 

The exit and entry ramps started coming at mile intervals.  Few vehicles were exiting and those entering were staggered enough that I only occasionally had to stop and wait for a gap before I could resume riding.  At 7:30 the traffic began backing up at a major merging point.  I was happy to see it,  as I could cut through the gridlock across two lanes of traffic to the bridge I wanted to Abu Dhabi, which is an eleven mile by eight mile island.  Three bridges connect it to the main land from which I was entering.  

I didn't know how perilous those bridges would be for cyclists.  As I approached the one I had chosen, it appeared as if there was still a shoulder.  And then I noticed an actual sidewalk.  It wasn't a towering bridge and before I reached it I saw a cluster of domes and four towering minarets of a mosque.  It was so striking I knew it had to be the Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosquep, the Grand Mosque of the city.  My friend Dudley, frequent commenter to the blog and an inveterate world traveler from Australia, who I met in the Philippines a year ago, had told me it was the one must-see sight in Abu Dhabi.  Lonely Planet agreed.  I didn't realize it was on the outskirts of the city.  I was happy to have it fall right into my lap.  

It was eight a.m.  I had knocked off eighteen miles and had another ten to the other must-see sight--the corniche (coastline) on the far end of the island.  Those next ten miles would still be hectic, but I would have options.  I was greatly relieved to have crossed on to the island with a minimum of hassle and peril.  I could relax for the first time of the day.  I had been dreading getting into Abu Dhabi for days, and it had turned out to be not so bad.

The closer I got to the mosque the more magnificent it looked.

The mosque was conceived by the late Sheik Zayed, known as "the father" of the UAE.  It was completed in 2007, three years after his death and eleven years after its construction had begun.  It is one of the largest and most striking mosques in the world with eighty-two domes and space to accommodate fifty thousand worshippers, ten thousand inside.

I had to wait until nine before I could gain entry, giving me time to have another breakfast and change into long pants.  While I sat in the shade by the entrance, cars began backing up.  Two women got out of one to give me a query.  One was fully covered in black, other than a slit for her eyes, while the other let her hair flow for all to see and wore slacks and a sweater.  The one dressed Western-style was from Toronto visiting her mother.  They had driven from Dubai, over one hundred miles away, this morning to see the mosque.

A strict dress code was posted at the entry to the grounds of the mosque.  

Those who weren't in compliance were provided with approved attire--men a white robe and women a black robe and scarf.  Free hour-long tours were offered.  The tour was as much an introduction to the Islamic faith as it was a commentary on the mosque.  Everyone removed their shoes before entering the mosque and its carpet--the world's largest Persian rug.  It took two planes to fly it over from Iran.

The mosque is also noted for its seven huge chandeliers.  The largest weighs twelve tons.  It is cleaned twice a year.

The mosque and its grounds were mobbed with tourists from all over the world. Tours are only given in English, but there were head sets providing commentary in eleven languages.  

It was distant from the urban center and its handful of skyscrapers.  Even though Abu Dhabi is by far the largest and most affluent of the seven Emirates, it hasn't gone skyscraper-crazy as has Dubai.  A minimal scattering lined the highway along the cornich, in contrast to the multiple forests of skyscrapers in Dubai.  

As those of Dubai many were exotic.

Dubai had nothing to compare though to Abu Dhabi's string of beaches for several miles along its central district.  Bikinis were allowed on the beach but not beyond.

A bike path ran for five miles along the waterfront from the ultra-opulent Palace Hotel, that did not allow bicycles on its grounds, to the harbor and an array of wooden fishing boats. Across the bay from the beaches were a few more tourist attractions--a huge mall, a theater and a Heritage Village with small museums and craft shops and the opportunity to ride a camel.

Arriving so early to the island I had time to soak in its offerings and get a good enough sense of it to know it was a place I would much prefer to return to than Dubai. I had arranged for a hotel, but felt I had gotten an adequate dose of the city, that I needn't linger and could make an escape back to the desert, which I was already missing.  But I was also committed to making another attempt on talking to Janina?  We had been thwarted all too many times since I'd left Chicago, so had to resist the lure of the sand.

But once again FaceTime failed us, even though I had proved it was viable with the Afghanis several days ago.  I emailed Janina and told her I would go in search of a phone card as my hotel room had a phone.  I learned that those sold here only worked with mobile phones.  When I reported the discouraging news to the concierge he offered his.  When I returned to the store that sold the cards, they said they only sold cards for India.  I continued my search stopping in at half a dozen more stores, being sent from one to another, before I found one that sold cards for the US.  By then it was well after dark and ninety minutes since I had emailed Janina that I would resort to the phone.  I had wandered through a warren of streets and through a couple of malls that were modern-day souks and had lost my bearings.  I feared I would have to hail a taxi to find my way back to my hotel.  But after a couple of blocks I recognized a landmark.  By now Janina had been waiting for two hours and would soon have to leave for Columbia to play professor.  

I caught her in time and all the effort to track down a phone card was rewarded, except that the card didn't even last ten minutes. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Moreb Hill, UAE

Moreb Hill, one of the world's highest sand dunes, nearly one thousand feet high, resides at the end of a twelve-and-a-half mile road with no other destination.  The road is a spur off the main highway through the Liwa Oasis.  It dead ends within twenty miles of Saudi Arabia.  This is where the Empty Quarter begins.   It was the first road I'd been on over here that didn't have camel high fences or vegetation projects keeping it company.  At last, I truly was penetrating the desert.  The blowing sand and no traffic made it feel all the more so.  

The dunes were so high and so majestic all around me, I wondered if this dune was truly so exceptional as to warrant my present battle with the winds and the hills to go all the way out to the end of the road, only to have to turn around and repeat the battle. The wind was mostly from the side, so the return would be no easier than the ride out.  I couldn't imagine that Moreb could be any more breathtaking than anything else I had seen.  I wasn't really sure if I wanted to go out of my way at the expense of all the energy I was expending to see some "tourist sight," rather than sticking to my usual style of just enjoying the sights on my way to wherever I was going.  That was too much like being a tourist, rather than a traveler.  

As my conscience debated the issue as I pushed up one steep, wind-blasted climb after another in my lowest gear, the scenery ahead kept drawing me further and further down the road.  I knew this was a ride without compare to the edge of civilization.  I could hardly take advantage of the descents, as I feared hitting a patch of sand around a bend, not being able to brake in time to avoid it.  The sand was gathering at the road's edge.  Soon I was halfway there and then within a couple of miles.  I had no worries about food or water, as I was fully-provisioned, and the half-day I was sacrificing for this wouldn't put me under pressure to get back to Dubai in time for my flight home over a week away, so I couldn't use logistical considerations as justifications for turning around.  

After nearly two hours I reached road's end.  It was in a horseshoe of three large dunes.  I didn't know which was Moreb.  I was right that Moreb wasn't any more spectacular than countless other dunes I'd passed, just somewhat higher.  A cluster of buildings at the base of one implied that it was Moreb, as did the three lines of rope two-thirds of the way to its summit for sight-seers to pull themselves up with. The amenities came as a surprise,  especially since no one else was making the trip out this way even though it was Friday, the first day of the Islamic weekend.

The huge parking lot at the base of Moreb was empty.  The whole place seemed deserted.  I was happy to discover the men's room was unlocked and that an electrical outlet outside of it was on.  I could do some wash and some charging.  After several minutes someone peeked into the washroom and pleasantly asked, "Where are you from?"

I could recognize him as a guest worker, probably Indian.  I told him I was from the US and didn't realize anyone else was out here.  He asked, "Is that your iPad out there?"

"It is.  There wouldn't by chance be WIFI here?" I replied.

"There is.  Come around to my room when you're done and you can use it?"

This was too good to be true.  It had been three days since I'd last come across WIFI.  To find it at this distant outpost was well nigh a miracle. 

He was part of a crew of half a dozen workers who looked after the complex out here.  The month before was a huge annual week-long car, motor cycle, horse, falcon and camel racing festival on the surrounding flats.  It attracted thousands from all over.  And throughout the cooler months people came out to climb Moreb, though not today.

He shared a room with his brother.  They weren't Indian, but rather Afghanis.  Their English was perfect and they both had iPads to stay in touch with their families back home.  They were here on their third one-year contract, returning home for a month after each year.  They grabbed a chair from another room for me to sit on, but I told them I preferred the floor, as did they.  They put out a bowl of dates and offered tea or coffee.  After chatting for a while and sharing photos on our iPads they let me at my computer and they returned to theirs, as they largely spent their free time.  When the call to prayer sounded, they both left the room.  

When they returned,  they brought me a plate of rice with a chicken drum stick, my usual lunch at the local trucker cafes.  They felt fortunate to have the opportunity to work here, though of course their separation from their wives and children wasn't so easy.  It was hard to say was more boggled, they having an American sitting in their room, or me sitting in the living quarters of a couple of Afghanis at the base of one of the highest sand dunes in the world just a few miles from Saudi Arabia.  Such is the marvel of travel.  Moreb may not have been anything special, but this experience more than vindicated the ride out to it.

They used Apple's FaceTime to communicate with friends and family in Afghanistan and asked to add me to their directory.  I will be delighted to hear from them when I return home.  They invited me to spend the night, but with the wind blowing sand over the road as I came in, I wished to be on my way lest the road truly get buried.  And it was well that I did, because during my two hours out there the road had begun to disappear.

I also came upon a cluster of nursing camels being shepherded back to their encampment.

The shepherd offered me a can of Mountain Dew, my second soda of the day.  The Afghanis sent me off with a can of coke.  Never have I enjoyed such hospitality.  So it has been since my arrival, from one and all--locals, ex-pats and guest workers.  Everyone looks after everyone else here.  The environment is harsh and water so scarce it is brought out in huge trucks.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Liwa Oasis, UAE

For nearly one hundred and fifty miles, with another hundred ahead of me, I've had endless miles of wind-sculpted sand to gaze upon. This is the Arabia of Thesiger and one's imagining.  There may be a four-laned band of asphalt penetrating it, but it is an inconsequential trickle amongst the ocean of sand that goes to the horizon, to eternity and beyond.  One's thought is drawn to the imponderables--time, space, why, what for.  But I know better than to dwell upon the unaswerables.  Instead I let the wonder of it simply fill me with joy at my good fortune to be able to intimately experience this world. 

I've had incomparable campsites among the dunes, down in gullies just off the road.  The soft sand and vast expanses has provided the best sleeping of the trip.

A fence runs along both sides of the road to keep the camels from becoming a road hazard.  Many come to the fence lusting after vegetation that has been planted along the road, beginning a slow reclamation of the desert and also as a barrier against the blowing sand.  Rubber piping runs through the bushes bringing water all the way from the desalinization plants along the sea.  The wealth of the nation isn't being entirely spent on roads and skyscrapers.

In time this stretch may become as lush as the one hundred mile corridor from Abu Dhabi on the coast to Al Ain in the interior--a somewhat incongruous deluxe six-lane highway with greenery sparing motorists from the barren countryside about them.

Motorists now stop and tell me they saw me the day or days before and wonder who I am and where I am from and what I'm doing.  An hour before sunset a couple nights ago a motorist who'd seen me in Al Ain earlier in the day stopped along the road to invite me to his home for the night twenty kilometers up the road. "We'll have potatoes for dinner and you can have a shower and we'll wash your clothes," he said. He drew me a map.  Unfortunately, it wasn't as precise as it could have been and his estimate of twenty kilometers was much less than the actual distance.  It became too dark to continue and I missed out on his exuberant hospitality.  I wondered if his wife would dine with us.  She was with him and was fully veiled even in the safety of the car.  He was the first person to stop me holding up a couple of bottles of water.  When he handed them to me I dropped a candy bar I didn't realize he'd included.  

Lately among the ex-pat workers, I've met a series from Bangladesh, including one who asked someone to take a photo of the two of us that he said he'd post on Facebook. With half the population in the Emirates out of country workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines, it is safe to speak English with anyone.  They may not speak much, but they will speak some.  The vast majority of cafe and shop workers are of these nationalities.  A few miles off the main coastal highway when I began this loop out into the desert I passed a huge complex that housed "Guest workers."  It was a long distance from anywhere.  For several miles as I closed in on this walled-in development a steady stream of the white buses that transport these workers to their work sites had been flying past me. If it hadn't been so far off the road, I would have ridden in to see if it was as much of a prison as it looked from the distance, if they'd allow me in.  There was an advertisement along the road for a hypermarket, so most likely they would have.

The winds have been kindly these miles through the desert.  If they turned adversarial, I could be thrust into a survival situation.  The whipping sand can be perilous, limiting visibility and possibly leaving me all alone on the road and in the desert.  A sand storm and extreme heat caused the cancellation of the fifth stage of the Tour of Oman a few days ago, making me feel glad I didn't make the effort to return to Muscat after the Green Mountain stage for it.  The riders attempted an abbreviated version of the stage despite the blowing sand, but the better than one hundred degree temperatures was causing the glue that held their tires to the rims to melt and was making their brakes ineffectual as well.  Usually early season races are altered due to snow and cold.  The fifth stage had a bit of climbing to it that could have helped Van Garderen overcome his nine second deficit and take the race lead.  The final sixth stage was too flat to effect the standings so he had to settle for second overall just as he did last year.  Still a good indication that he is on form and could improve on his fifth place finish in the Big Race in July.  Its four months away, but I'm already looking forward to being back in France for it. I know I will have this marvelous desert still somewhere on my mind.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Al Ain, United Arab Emirates

The rocky, desolate terrain turned into sandy, desolate terrain as I headed northwest out of Oman back to the United Arab Emirates.  I was on the fringe of the Empty Quarter that extends into Saudi Arabia.  There was some scattered, straggly vegetation that provided food for a few stray camels.  Signs warned of camels before I began seeing them.  Signs also warned of cross winds.  Maybe motorists needed to be alerted to them, but they were no secret to me.  They blew waves of sand across the road. The sand stayed low, but when a truck or car passed it would disrupt the air flow and lash me top to bottom with the particles.  My left ear was soon filled with grit.  I was buffeted all over the road, struggling to even go nine miles per hour.

Fortunately it was a cool wind.  For the first time in three weeks I needed my windbreaker.  When an Australian couple gave me some chocolate, I didn't have to worry about it melting.  If I had been battling such a wind when the temperature had been in the 90s I would have been pouring sweat and worried about running out of water.  

For the first time I had stretches over twenty-five miles between sources for food and water.  I turned off the road to go a kilometer to one small town.  There was water at its mosque, but not a store to be found nor a person to be seen.  Every home had a wall about it.  After a half hour rest as I headed back to the main road a car pulled up alongside me and a white-robed young man asked if I needed anything.  I told him I had come looking for food and water. He invited me to his home.  I told him I had found water and had eaten my fill of dates and cookies that I had in reserve.  

It was tempting to accept his offer but If I had gone to his home I wouldn't have had the appetite to eat anything.  A few minutes down the road I regretted I didn't think to ask him if he had WIFI.  Earlier in the day I had unsuccessfully spent half an hour  stopping at coffee houses and restaurants and photography stores seeking it in Ibri, the last city for one hundred miles.  I would have liked to have known if Van Garderen had been able to overcome his nine second deficit and taken the lead in the Tour of Oman. It could be a couple of days before I would find out.

For the first time in days I had to put the rain fly on my tent, not out of concern for dew as along the coast, but to protect me from the blowing sand and also for warmth.  The temperature fell to fifty.  There had been nights when it barely dropped below seventy.

Though I could ponder the majesty and barrenness of the Empty Quarter, I didn't have any sense of the solitude or isolation that accompanied me when I've crossed many another desert--the Kalahari in South Africa, the Nullarbor in Australia, the Atacama in Chili and even route 50 across Nevada (known as America's loneliest road), as rarely did more than a minute pass without a vehicle flying by, some mistaking the 120 kilometer per hour speed limit for 120 miles per hour.  

Oman has too many people with cars wishing to go somewhere making it hard to find a lonely road.  Maybe I'd have to head to Salalah, 600 miles south of Muscat near the Yemen border to find such a road, either the coastal route or the route through the interior.  Both are said to be very scenic.  I didn't allow enough time for such a loop this time. The winds have been very negligible until the last two days.  I'd have to allow quite a bit of time if I were to make such a circuit accounting for the possibility of harsh adversarial winds.

Crossing back into the UAE took a little more time than crossing into Oman with an official in a back room approving my passport rather than the woman up front and then an official at the next check
point taking fifteen minutes to draw up papers for my bicycle while all those in cars were given just a perfunctory check.  In the cool I hadn't been able to give myself much of a wash.  I hoped I didn't look too derelict to be allowed into the country.  Oman was said to be picky about letting unwashed cars into the country and would even ticket dirty cars in the larger cities.  

From the border it was fifteen miles to Al Ain, a sprawling city of half a million.  Along the way I passed several mini-caravans of camels out near the daily camel market.

I also passed a huge cement factory and then some smaller ones.  Before I knew it, I was on the fringe of Al Ain even though I had taken a bypass around it, as evening was approaching and I didn't care to be caught in the city.  A hotel was out of the question, as Lonely Planet said the cheapest to be found was one hundred dollars, more than I had spent in Oman the past sixteen days, other than my Valentine Day night in a hotel in Muscat. I thought I might be able to camp behind the wall of a mosque, but it wasn't secluded enough.  Nor was some vacant land behind a large car dealership.  I was tempted by a cluster of bushes besides a prison wall, but feared being spotted by the guard tower.  A little further I came upon the zoo with thick enough vegetation along one of its walls to disappear into.  It was a quiet night with no howls or grumbles from those on the other side of the wall.

The next morning I ventured into the city for some site seeing.  First was the Sheik Zayed Palace Museum. It wasn't particularly palatial.  Its prominent feature was a large courtyard with a tent and some vegetation within its walls.

Just beyond the Palace was a huge oasis of some 150,000 date palms, a collection of cultivated plots owned by individual landowners, each farming thousands of date palms.  A narrow cobbled road wound its way amongst them. I stopped and talked to a gentleman returning to his car after an early-morning stroll.  He asked me that question that is becoming a refrain, "Do you need anything?"  I told him I had hoped I might be able to buy some dates.  He said they won't be ready for harvest until June. Then he opened his car door and reached in.  I thought he might have a bag for me, but when he turned back he was clutching two 100 Dirham notes, more than fifty dollars, and presented them to me.  "No, no," I said.  "I've no need for that."

Also near by was the Al-Jahili Fort, one of the largest in the country built in the 1890s as a royal summer residence for a Sheik who lived in Abu Dhabi, which got steamy hot in the summer.  

It houses a large permanent exhibition of the photographs of Wilfred Thesiger, the English explorer who made two unprecedented explorations of the Empty Quarter between 1945 and 1950, that earned him a knighthood. He had spent time at the fort in his travels. The exhibit included a fifteen minute video of he and his two Bedouin companions reminiscing about their perilous trips that totaled ten thousand miles, staving off thirst and hunger.  They'd go days without water.  They never knew when they awoke in the morning if any of their camels might have died, which could have meant the death of them as well.

Now its off for my own small taste of the Empty Quarter to the most picturesque and prominent of the dunes of the UAE along the Saudi Arabia border.  I have better water carrying capacity than a camel with all the water bottles I've accumulated from the two bike races that brought me over here--two atop each of my panniers and plenty more buried inside.