An Abu Dhabi Oasis

We enjoyed a day and evening in Dubai on our Seven Seas Navigator World Cruise. We sailed in to the port of Abu Dhabi the next morning. There is a striking difference between these two United Arab Emirates city/countries. The skyline of Dubai is astounding with its many buildings of record-breaking height with even taller ones under construction. This is stark contrast to Abu Dhabi, which has a larger population than Dubai but not the impressive number of gigantic buildings.

Having been to Abu Dhabi before, we looked over the ship’s offerings of shore excursions and decided to go to the oasis town of Al Ain, two and a half hours away. We were interested in the fact that it’s a lovely, less frantic town where much of the royal family has chosen to live in palaces that are built out of sight of street traffic. There are no skyscrapers in Al Ain at all.

Al Ain also lived up to its billing of being an oasis town. On the approach to the city, it was immediately apparent that we were entering a really green city – lots of trees and grass that needs regular mowing. We haven’t seen that for more than a month’s travel. Most street intersections cross each other in roundabout form and are decorated with flowers, shrubbery and sculptures. Don’t misunderstand, the place is still hot, hot, hot. Much of the greening is accomplished with simple and sophisticated irrigation systems.

Our first stop was at Al Ain Oasis, where we saw for the first time the operation and management of an oasis. We learned that it is a three-tiered oasis garden. Under this system, each plant cares for the others. At the top tier, date palms shade the other plants, protecting them from sand storms, attracting moisture and producing dry matter that becomes fertilizer. In the middle tier, there are fruit trees such as mangoes, figs, mulberries, bananas, pomegranates and grapes. At the lowest level, there are vegetables for daily food such as pumpkins, carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers.

There are also manmade trenches that deliver water all over the entire oasis.

Our next stop was the necessary town market. This one was under roof with shops on both sides and a great row of produce down the middle. Since this area produces great quantities of dates, they were offered loose and in packages in all sorts of varieties. There was a refrigerated meat market with great cuts of meat, including camel, hanging in the window. Camel milk, both fluid and dried, is also offered in other stores in great abundance. And there were stores with pots, pans and other cooking implements too numerous to account for.

For lunch, we went to a nice hotel where tourists and locals enjoyed a buffet with great variety. Pastas, soups, Asian treats, fresh salads and something that could pass for Chicken McNuggets pleased everybody.

Our final stop before heading back the long road to Abu Dhabi was what was called the “Camel Market.” It was enormous and dealt with a whole lot more than camels. First of all, it was a great mall in the sense there were rows and rows of streets with regular stores for clothing, souvenir and household shopping. Then, we moved on to the livestock. Sheep, goats and more sheep and goats were on offer (that’s the way they say it over here) before we got to the actual camel area. We were not quite prepared for what we saw. It wasn’t awful. Just pen after pen of small, medium and large camels, with many in each pen. We were further surprised to learn that many of these camels were not raised on camel ranches in the neighborhood. They were imported from Australia where camels are actually considered to be pests like deer in Jefferson County.

Here, camels are more than “ships of the desert.” They are dinner. And sometimes, one can cost the equivalent of $1,000 for a camel for a single dinner. I didn’t find out if the hump was the prized cut, sort of like the drumstick. In all of our travels, we have never been served camel, but after this trip to the camel market, I can tell you it is not in short supply.

Anyhow, our visit to the camel market caused us to have a whole lot of flies on our air-conditioned bus back to the ship. So we played sleep and swat for two hours all the way home.

After two days in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, we sailed into Salalah in Oman. It is the capital and seat of the governor, or wali, of the Omani province of Dhofar. The city is the second largest city in the Sultanate of Oman.

I don’t think they get a lot of tourists. The terminal is not particularly tourist-friendly but they have lots of huge waterside cranes, the kind that can pick up enormous containers and move them from ship to shore and vice versa.

We drove to the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Mosque, which is enormous and beautiful. It was built in 2009, 39 years after he ascended the throne. The mosque is white marble with a glorious soaring ceiling. There is a fabulous Swarovski crystal chandelier that fills the central dome. There are no chairs or pews. There is a white marble floor with a beautiful and thick green, gold and white rug that is almost wall-to-wall. It holds 32,000 people! Everyone removes their shoes outside and walks inside on the cool white marble then onto the rug where they kneel and worship four times a day. Their vocal prayers have a sing-song cadence, foreign to our ears but lovely. The mosque is mainly for men but has a prayer room for women.

Our gentle and charming guide led us to a large rack containing books on the Islamic religion. The Quran was written 1,400 years ago. We were invited to take a book if we wanted.

On to the frankincense museum. This is gum resin from the frankincense tree, used in religious and medical rituals. You can purchase both frankincense and frankincense oil in the souk. In its dried form, it looks like lumps of pale brown sugar.

The city is a popular destination for tourism due to the natural attractions of the nearby mountains and abundant stands of frankincense trees lining mountain Wadi courses. The climate supports wildlife more often seen in East Africa such as leopards and hyenas.

It is one of the few ancient areas on the Arabian Peninsula that has extensive coconut cultivation. In ancient times, coir from the thick husk of the coconut of the local, tall variety was used to stitch the planking of the traditional sewn boats used in the Western Indian Ocean. They also have banana plantations.

Salalah has the ruins of the fortified town Sumharam, an important port from 100 B.C. to A.D. 400. The strategic location of this port made it one of the major entry ports to India, the Middle East and Africa.

Only Emirates can work there except for teachers. Most people usually make $1,500 a month, pay no tax and their education and healthcare are free!

That evening, our friend Malcolm gave a big dinner party for his and our friend Millie, the photographer. We had the longest banquet table ever and even the ship’s general manager and the executive concierge attended.

The next day, we sailed the Arabian Sea. The day after that, we were in the Gulf of Aden and then two days in the Red Sea. We finally docked in Aquaba, Jordan and prepared to go off the ship to Petra. VT

Photos Courtesy of Carla Sue Broecker.