Sunday, March 29, 2015

Middle Eastern Misconception #1: Clothing

Note: Many people ask me what it’s like to live in the Middle East, or, more specifically, they ask what is it like for a Norcal girl to move here. This is my first attempt at a few true, short stories to show my struggles and misconceptions with my move to the desert. And, also, to share my overwhelming stubbornness to respect the culture and keep my identity.

As I first began to pack and prepare for our move to the Middle East, there were lots of things I could have been concerned about.

Would I miss any major milestones while abroad?
(Of course I would and have – this is one of the hardest parts of living abroad.I mean I still haven’t met my sister’s adorable baby girl!)

Would Ibuprofen or tampons be available?
(Sadly, a hard no to Ibuprofen*, it’s an all about Panadol over here; and yes to tampons, turns out only in Central America do they keep them locked behind the counter.) 

Would I enjoy living in an apartment, having only ever lived in various houses/townhouses?
(Actually, yes. It is different, but I love having my neighbors so close by. People make us dinner so often - it’s totally the best!)

And while all of these things may have caused me a moment of pause, I really only had one major concern, how would I be expected to dress?

I had done my homework prior to moving to Kuwait. I knew that I would not be expected to wear an abaya (the traditional black dress) or hijab (the head covering). I knew that B would not be expected to wear a dishdasha (the traditional male dress). I knew that western dress abounded in Kuwait and that I would not stand out in a grocery store or on the street. I even went so far as to google street photos of Kuwait, just to assure myself that this was true. It was. And, yet, still I worried.

I worried mainly because I had been told just one simple rule: keep your shoulders and your knees covered. This seemed easy enough, wear a t-shirt and some capris and I would be golden, but I didn't want to wear a T-shirt and capris. My identity was tied to my tank tops. I had quite a few, maybe even more than a few, I had dozens.

Multiple black and white basic tanks, tanks with different colors and patterns, tanks with cute phrases, strappy tanks, ribbed tanks, tank dresses and workout tanks. I was a tank top girl and, as such, I couldn’t just start wearing T-shirts.

It wasn't just about a loyalty to tank tops. I genuinely believed my arms appeared stubby and stocky in T-shirts. Their cut just didn’t allow for the graceful contour of my shoulders or the added inches my arms desperately needed. I became self-conscious in T-shirts, genuinely not understanding how everyone else could pull them off, while I appeared to have developed sausages in my sleeves overnight.

With this anxiety, I was unwilling to pack any T-shirts or short-sleeved shirts at all. I used the justification of wasted space. Packing a T-shirt, even a cute one, would just take up valuable space that would be better served filled with boots - because a girl always needs lots of boots - and I wouldn’t wear the T-shirt anyway.

However, I was still stuck with trying to solve the predicament of what to wear upon arrival.

Since I couldn't wear tank-tops and I wouldn't wear t-shirts, what should I wear? Then inspiration hit. I would dress as I do in the winter in the states. Nevermind, that the predicted temperature for my first few months was in the hundred’s. I would pack sweaters.

I looked great in sweaters. I would pack jeans and long skirts and sweaters. I would also pack some tank tops, as they would now prove useful under the multitude of sweaters I could be seen attempting to stuff into my suitcases and backpacks.

I felt prepared. My shoulders and knees would be covered. My arms would appear full length, swathed in fabric. My legs would look adorable in jeans and boots. I would respect the culture and look stylish. I practically shone with confidence in my logic.

However, just a few days later, I shone with sweat instead.

I arrived, in the middle of the desert, in the wicked hot month of August, in a sweater, a tank top, jeans, and boots.

I spent my first few months in Kuwait, sweating profusely and bemoaning the sweltering heat, despite the fact, that I was used to similar heat and had never felt this strongly against it before.

I glistened in the  multitude of photos we took. There I stood, slouched over, looking miserable in a sweat-soaked, forest green, hip-length sweater, thick jeans and tall brown boots, next to groups of girls and guys smiling in T-shirts and capris.

And still, after all this, I would not give in. I would not wear a T-shirt. I would not show my now pasty-white, still sausage-like arms to the world.

Heat be damned.

*Correction: I have been told there is Ibuprofen available here, at pharmacies, just not at the grocery store. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A Day in the Desert

The weather has been beautiful this week. Absolutely gorgeous. It is so great, that no one wants to stay indoors. This is a rare - almost never - feeling in Kuwait. We get maybe 20 days a year that make people want to run outside, and I swear, nineteen of those days land on work days - sunny days where I sit at my desk or stare out my classroom door and dream of a game of beach volleyball, just to finally have Saturday roll around and the whole city be enveloped in a sand storm. That is the springtime norm in Kuwait, five nice weekdays followed by an overcast, sandy weekend.

However, this Saturday, the mythical gorgeous weekend appeared and the whole of Kuwait raced outdoors.

On a beautiful Saturday in March, there are a surprising number of options for how to spend your day. You could BBQ on the beach, take a boat out to Kubbar, go visit the farmer’s market downtown, or even just hang out in the courtyard. However, we chose the best option of all, a desert day!

The country of Kuwait is 95% desert and therefore I was under the impression that finding some desert to play-in would be a simple 10-15 minute drive from our apartments. We did have some expectations, though, we wanted no people, no trash, and lots of sand dunes. This seemed like a simple wish – but in actuality it was difficult to find.

The deserts near the city are full of wind blown litter and electrical poles. They are also filled with canvas tents – hundreds of them, maybe even thousands. There is a culture in Kuwait of desert camping, of going off into the desert with just your family and finding your Bedouin roots. This is a cool idea but the reality is miles of canvas cities, with electricity and mini-water towers, situated one after another, mere steps from each other’s doorways.

This tent-filled, litter-covered desert was not the desert of our dreams and so we carried onward, toward the Iraq boarder. We passed the last buildings, the last highways, the last buses,  even the last camel caravan, until we started to see nothing, and then, before we could get excited, we saw something again.

Signs, huge signs, everywhere, stating: No trespassing. Military Installation. No photography. Big signs, little signs, red, yellow, blue – it seemed really clear we were headed into an area we were not supposed to visit, but we drove on.

 Now, before my bravery is spread throughout the interweb, I need to correct a misconception. I would have turned around. I would have turned around immediately. I would have never known the sheer number of signs and tanks and roadblocks and guard towers down the road because I would’ve flipped a U-turn at the first tiny red sign we saw.

But I was not driving, B was and he was following our friend Mace. And Mace is a true adventurer, a man of spirit and bravery and a man holding a Google map that clearly showed how cutting through this military installation would save us many, many minutes and miles. And so, with Mace at the wheel we drove on.

Pulling up to the guard tower we expected to meet some resistance. Off to one side was a desert army tank and all along the road were the numerous signs. A guard walked out in full military fatigues and glanced at our vehicles.

There wasn’t any way he could mistake us for military. The girls wore tank tops and ripped jeans. Our feet were propped up on the dashboard. The guys wore t-shirts and cargo shorts. Pop music was playing on the speakers. We were definitely not military. The guard looked again and waved us through. Clearly, the signs were overkill.

We cruised through the military installation. The desert stretched endlessly in both directions. There were no tents, no litter, and no electricity poles. It would have been the perfect place to play except for the signs. These were new signs, and they didn’t warn us that we were on a military installation, no, they warned us that we were on an active bombing site and that we should touch nothing. The signs were very clear - written in both English and Arabic with little drawings of explosions they made their point. We stayed on the road and then the sand track, hoping to find a place without bombs in which to spend our desert day.

Eventually, we came out the other side of the military installation. The desert was vast and empty. We began off-roading. Mace’s truck was much sturdier than ours and he climbed dunes rapidly, coasting down them casually, while we listened to his passengers’ cheers echo across the desert. We stuck more to the track, occasionally climbing a small dune and getting a rush when our jeep landed on the hard sand again. After a few hours of this, we were ready for a break and found a nice desert berm to picnic near.

Mace had brought an instagrill, a common contraption Kuwaitis use when BBQ-ing on the beach. We had also stopped and bought kebabs. The kebabs were simply labeled “butter and garlic” and were a bright green color. As we tossed them on the grill, we all took bets on what type of meat they might be. The girls were pretty sure they’d be chicken; Mace thought beef and B was starting to be concerned they might be a form of vegetable. Upon biting into one though, we all realized we’d missed the obvious choice – they were lamb.

 After a picnic lunch of lamb kebabs, pistachios, grapes and water, we were ready for our final adventure: magic carpet rides.

Mace had recently watched a YouTube video of some girls in abayas riding a carpet through the desert. He had thought this would be fun and so had decided to recreate it. The night before he had bolted a small carpet to a PCP pipe. He then ran a towrope through the pipe and attached it to his back bumper. One by one we climbed on while he pulled us behind his Pajero and through the soft sand. Watching the rider it looked slow, almost comically so, but when you climbed on the carpet yourself, it really did feel like you were flying. Racing over the sand, the camel dung and the random blocks of concrete that occasionally appeared, you were torn between joy at a carefree afternoon and fear that if you rolled off the carpet you might rip your face off.

We all rode the carpet successfully and no lasting injuries were sustained. In fact, we all felt so capable we agreed that on a future weekend we might have to take the carpet down some dunes. But that was a future plan. For now, we simply packed up our picnic and drove off. Back through the military installation, back across the minefield, and, eventually, back to the city, the buildings, and the people.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Man in a VW Van

It’s so easy to judge a city by its outward appearance, by its reputation, and Beirut is no different. It is dirty and crowded. It was raining when our plane touched down, so our first walk through the streets involved murky water, muddy sidewalks and dripping awnings.

And Beirut’s reputation isn’t the best, either. People cautioned us to be careful when we bought our tickets. Tripadvisor warned us of the safety concerns and even the Department of State urged us to avoid all travel to Lebanon.

But the amazing thing about Beirut is that the city recognizes its reputation - its outward appearance - and is trying to combat it. The area we walked was teeming with examples of the citizens trying to beautify their city. The staircases were painted a myriad of colors and patterns. Every space that wasn’t a building or path was full of trees, bushes and vines. Art studios and museums peeked out between industrial warehouses. With just a few steps down an alley, I was transported from a grimy street to a gorgeous path full of shops, restaurants and bars.

In fact, Beirut is kind of like an optical illusion.

You could look at the walls of ripped posters and torn advertisements and see trash, litter, ugly or you could look again and see artistic endeavors, concerts, ideas, attempts to make the walls more striking.

You could look at the shutters on a closed shop and see peeling paint and fading color or you could look again and see someone’s attempt to brighten an empty building.

Graffiti fills the staircases, warehouse doors and alleyways. You could look at it and shake your head, disgusted that someone would write their thoughts on a wall or you could stop and read the thoughts and laugh or sigh at how poignant they are and think “isn’t that just the perfect line to stumble across, on my walk, right now?”

I definitely experienced the beautiful Beirut as I walked the streets. I saw a place trying to remake itself, a place trying to show its true colors.

I heard “bon jour” as I wandered down an alley and whispered it back, feeling very European. I was teased by a group of old men who sat in front of a shop smoking and scolded me “to buy things to treat myself”. I felt beautiful when people smiled at me and included when people waved. I felt a part of the city and it was totally unexpected.

The best moment, though, was after I had climbed one of the many painted staircases and ended up on a narrow, crowded, totally congested street. I lifted my camera, thinking I had to get a shot of the traffic in Beirut, as it is the craziest I have ever seen, and as I took off my lens cap, I saw a VW van, my dream car, a few cars back in the line.

I thought, “How perfect. I’ll get a shot of that van in the traffic.” But the cars started to move right then and I wasn’t focused. I sighed, thinking that I had missed the shot, but then realized the van wasn’t moving. The cars in front of it were gone, but it still sat there, in the middle of the street, waiting for me to photograph it. So I did, obviously.

I laughed to myself, not really knowing why the van hadn't moved, but feeling very fortunate. As I started to walk, the van cruised by, with the driver’s window rolled down. I looked at the driver, an old bearded man smoking a cigarette, and I smiled. He winked at me. I knew at that moment, that he had waited for me to take the photo. He had known what I wanted.

I felt so lucky, so in sync with the world. A man in a van stopped to let me take his photo and it totally made my day.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Ruins of Jerash (Jordan, Part II)

If you ever get a chance to visit Jordan, I definitely recommend you rent a car and drive. The country is beautiful and full of so much history. Also, car rentals are insanely cheap -$25-dollars-a-day-cheap – awesome, right?

I also recommend you get a GPS, as there aren’t always signs indicating proper directions for cities and landmarks. However, I will warn you that your GPS will be wrong as often as it is right, if not more so.

Our GPS would often point us in the right direction but eventually lead us to a dirt track in the middle of desert. Now, had we rented a 4-wheel drive truck, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but out tiniest-car-on-earth, just couldn’t hack it. At this point we would have to turn around, curse at the GPS, fiddle with the directions and eventually find out, that although we were only 30 minutes from our destination, we would need to backtrack 2 hours to get there. Needless to say, we developed a very strong, very confusing, love-hate relationship with our GPS.

That first day though, we still had absolute faith in her. And as we cruised down the highway, all we could do was gush about our GPS and her perfect directions. Once we had finally escaped Amman traffic, the drive was smooth. We sailed down the highway heading to the ancient ruins in the city of Jerash.

Jerash is a city located in Northern Jordan. Although it is a modern city, it is a huge tourist attraction due to the ancient ruins located within the city limits. These ruins date back to the rule of the Romans and are some of the best-preserved ruins in the world. More amazing is the lack of rules regarding the ruins. Although, it is clear that the government has carefully maintained them, guests are welcome to climb on the ruins, touch the ruins and crawl through the ruins. It was such a rush to know that the buildings around us had stood for close to 1000 years.

As we walked among the structures, we read about what each portion had been used for and why it was important. My mind struggled to imagine chariot races and festivals being held on these very grounds. The history that I read about and teach about was all around us – it was unbelievable.

As we reached the amphitheater, a local man approached us and offered to take our picture. This was a common offer throughout the day, and although I had declined numerous times before, I suddenly decided to go for it.

I handed him my camera and he immediately took over instructing us. We had expected him to gesture to us to stand there and then he would take one or two photos, but he had something else in mind entirely.

He began by directing us to stand above the amphitheater so he could take a shot with it in the background. He became very agitated when he realized I didn’t have zoom and began mumbling under his breath. He took a few photos and then stepped away. I reached for my camera and he shook his head. Instead, he told B to sit down and then placed me in B’s lap. Next he wrapped B’s arms around me. Both of us were so caught off guard we just followed his directions, laughing awkwardly. Next, he had us stand in an archway and again he wrapped B’s arms around me. By now, we had both begun to feel like we were at prom getting our photos taken. The poses were so uncomfortable and feigned. As he began to move to a different structure, I ran up to him and assured him that those photos were more than enough. I praised his professionalism and gave him a tip. I then took my camera and jogged back to B, trying not to break down and laugh until we were out of earshot.

Once we reached the car, I turned on the camera to review the photos. They were terrible. The settings were all wrong and we were either too dark or too light or too silly. In the end though it wasn’t the photos that made the day, it was the memory. And for the rest of the trip we always debated taking every photo in awkward-prom-pose, but thankfully it didn’t happen.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Escaping Amman (Jordan, Part I)

We arrived in Jordan late at night. We had reserved a car ahead of time but approached the rental desk with trepidation, since B had spent the last 45 minutes of the flight reading terrible reviews of this dealer.

Luckily, the man behind the counter seemed helpful and knowledgeable. He walked us out to the tiniest car we had ever seen. I was excited. It would be easy to maneuver and easy to park. B was worried that his legs wouldn’t fit. The car was quite dirty and when we started it up the gas tank was almost empty. The counter guy assured us that this was how all rentals worked in Jordan - just return it the same way. We shrugged and drove off.

As we raced down the highway toward Amman, we marveled at how cold it was outside. There were piles of snow everywhere. This would have been exciting, but we were currently experiencing the cold firsthand. We had come to realize that the heater in our car didn’t work. Fifteen minutes into the drive we were both shivering and by the time we reached the hotel, we knew we had to call the rental place and swap cars.

Our hotel was very friendly and quite run-down. A large group of men were yelling and drinking in the bar to our left and, as luck would have it, our room was right above that bar. Following the motto, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, we decided to head downstairs and have some drinks.

We were both excited for the chance to order alcohol - living in a dry country, makes every bar an amazing place. B ordered a local beer called Philadelphia. We joked about this ‘American’ name, but later learned that Amman was known as Philadelphia when it was under Greek rule. Whoops. I ordered a local wine. Neither of us was very impressed with our drinks and for the remainder of the trip we stuck to foreign wine and beer. I guess we have become a bit of snobs when it comes to our drinks.

The following morning we set out to find the closest rental place. A quick internet search revealed a branch just 5 kilometers away. Perfect. We would head there, get a new car and then get out of town. We loaded our bags, accepted some last minute tips from our hosts and headed down the street - except there was nowhere to go. Every street was jam-packed. No matter where we turned, traffic was stopped. In the end, it took us an hour and half to travel 6 kilometers. We had to laugh, and shake it off, what else was there to do.

The car exchange was easy - same car, different color - and we decided to rent a GPS for the next 10 days since we were finding Jordan very difficult to navigate. The new car had even less gas than our previous car, so, although we were both anxious to get out of Amman, our first order of business was to find a gas station.

Using the GPS it only took us only 12 wrong turns to get to a station.  We were both desperate to pee, but the station had only one restroom and only men were welcome to use it. While B was relieving himself, I was asked by the attendant to pay for the gas. In Kuwait, this is never an issue, as everyone speaks at least some English. But this attendant spoke none. I glanced at the total and tried to surreptitiously pull that amount of cash from the giant roll of bills in my purse.  I handed the attendant the money and he began to shake his head and gesture wildly. I had no idea what was wrong.

I pulled out more money – a mistake, I know – and gestured to it, trying to ask how much more he needed. He grabbed double the amount on the machine. I started to argue. He walked away. I didn’t know what to do. B appeared at this moment, I quickly explained (he just shook his head when I got to the part about pulling cash out) and he went to try to reason with the attendant. The attendant acted like he had no idea why I was upset.

It was at this moment that a stranger appeared. In every travel adventure, I am saved by the kindness of strangers - they are some of my favorite people. The stranger asked us what was wrong and then translated to the attendant. Basically, the attendant was swearing that he had filled up our tank halfway, accidentally erased the total, then continued to fill it and that is why he needed double. The stranger added that the attendants “were all thieves” and I should watch them at all times. I sighed. I hadn’t been watching at all.

In the end, we decided to just leave it. As is often the case, the attendant definitely needed the money more than me and I had been reminded of an important lesson. Only show the money you are willing to spend, not all the money you have. xo.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Kuwaiti Camel Racing Club

Since our first week in Kuwait, I have wanted to attend the Kuwaiti Camel Races. In my mind, it was just like a Middle Eastern Dick Francis novel. A large oval track, grandstands rising on one side, jockeys in bright colors and camels, lots of camels. I imagined a day at the races. Maybe, I would wear a large hat, maybe I would sip a mint julep, maybe I would bet on the winner, but I was positive, no matter what, it would be a exciting.

The first week of January, I began to hear whispers of Camel Racing. A friend mentioned that they had begun and were taking place every Saturday at 2. A few buttons on my phone and Google maps gave me the location, just a short, 45-minute jaunt into the desert – the Kuwaiti Camel Racing Club.

I convinced B to join me. He was not as excited as I was. He listened to the day I described and then interjected some reality: I did not own a big hat – a hijab would be more practical, I would not be sipping a mint julep – I would not be sipping any alcohol at all, as it is haram (illegal), and finally, there would be no betting on the races, unless I wanted to get arrested. These were all good points, but I was still hooked on seeing camels’ race. I pulled out my secret ace: When a camel runs all 4 feet come off the ground at the same time, didn’t he want to see that?

Turns out he didn’t, but he came anyways - he is sweet like that. So on the first Saturday we could, a group of us climbed into our jeep and headed to the desert.

Upon first impression, the Kuwaiti Camel Club was not what I expected. There was no racetrack and no grandstand. People milled around along a stretch of rope and 4 feet in front of the rope was an orange fence. This fence lined the “track” which in reality was just a flat stretch of sand.

No one knew when the races would start and there was no announcer or scoreboards. Desert stretched out in all directions – no food stands, no shops, and very little shade, literally a fence and a hundred Kuwaiti flags billowing in the breeze.

6 men had brought camels and were offering to give people rides. Since the pregnant camel incident in Bahrain, I have continued in vain to ride a camel. This was my chance. I approached a man and gestured to his camel, he nodded and I awkwardly climbed aboard. Dozens of people stood around taking pictures and climbing on other camels. The man shook the rains of the camel and shouted at him to rise. The camel threw me forward, rose halfway, gave a scary bellow and then sunk down – refusing to move. I had yet again, failed to ride a camel.

The man gestured to me to climb off. I stared aghast as person after person climbed aboard various camels and rode around. What was it with me camels? Why can’t I ride one?

Suddenly, people started to shout and move toward the rope. Off in the distance we could see a huge dust cloud. The camels were coming.

As they neared, it became clear that on either side of the camels were dozens of trucks. The trucks were literally racing across the desert ‘herding’ the camels to race. The camels trotted past. Foam poured out of their mouths and they looked exhausted. We watched as they crossed the finish line.

There were no jockeys on their backs. Instead, there were just little metal boxes with whips attached. We later learned that the men in the trucks controlled the whips as they drove along next to the camels. The race we had witnessed had been 11 kilometres. The camels had started way before we had arrived, but we only saw seconds of the actual race and, without an announcer, it was hard to follow what was happening or who was winning.

We stayed for 2 hours. In that time, we witnessed 3 sets of racing camels cross the finish line. They crossed in a slow lope, usually bunched up, with maybe one or two crossing a little behind the rest. A winner was never announced and no one really cheered. All in all, it was less than exciting, but an experience nonetheless.

As we went to leave, I decided to attempt one more camel ride. I chose the largest camel. I climbed aboard and held on tight. The camel rose high into the air. It was like riding a bucking bull as I was tossed forward, backward, forward, but suddenly, there I was, looking down at all our friends. The man led me in slow circle. It was crazy how high I was. The final race was coming toward us and I got to watch the trucks and camels cross the desert from my sky-high perch. It was awesome.

So although we will, probably, never again attend the Kuwaiti Camel Races, I will always count it as a success - because I finally rode a camel.

(New goal: Ride an elephant.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Straddling a Pregnant Camel

Ever since we backpacked Australia, I have wanted to ride a camel. It doesn’t seem that difficult a goal, but I am finding it rather impossible to fulfill.

I actually had the chance to ride a camel in Oz, but held off because I had heard of a wine-tasting and camel-riding tour and wanted to do that instead. However, once we reached Adelaide, I was disappointed to find the tour closed for the season and I haven’t seen a camel since.

This was expected to change on our recent holiday. I had read that the Sheikh had a 600+ camel farm in Bahrain that was open to the public. Even more exciting, it supposedly offered bareback camel rides.

I convinced B to go on Saturday afternoon. We followed the directions out of town and toward Saudi Arabia. We drove across the island and eventually found our turn off. We cruised down the road, keeping our eyes peeled for a camel farm. There appeared to be no signs and no farm. We doubled back and tried again. No success. Just as we were beginning to give up, a guard flagged us down, warning us to not continue down the road we were on. We requested directions to the farm and he gestured for us to turn right at the next entrance.

An ornate entrance appeared on our right soon afterwards, but it had a huge sign stating, “Stop! Private Property!” B started to drive by, but I convinced him to turn in. I argued that we had already been stopped and turned away by one guard, what’s another.
As we parked, it was clear we were in the right place. Hundreds of camels stood before us. Some were in corrals, others were hobbled, and still others seemed free to wander. A large sign instructed us that we must not touch, stand close to or climb the camels. It seemed a simple request, but as I walked among them, I itched for the photo opportunity of standing near, touching or better yet climbing up on one and riding away.

I must have shown some of my longing, because soon after we entered, a young Indian caretaker approached us and offered to show us some of the newborn calves. He started by leading us around a large open air barn of young males. He warned us not to get too close as the males were known for biting and spitting.

Next, we approached a large corral full of mother camels and young calves. The youngest had just been born the week before. Much like a foal, it was already galloping around on shaky legs and alternating between wanting to nuzzle us and wanting to hide in fear.

Lastly, the caretaker introduced us to a very pregnant camel. She was 6 months in and HUGE. She still had 6 months to go before she would give birth. He had her lay down and then invited us to perch atop her. I was worried about hurting her, but he assured us it was fine. So we sat behind her hump and took a few photos. We looked, and felt, quite silly straddling a pregnant camel on a farm of 600 others, but that was the closest I was going to get to a ride, so I took it.
As we exited the farm I asked if the Sheikh raced the camels or rode them. The caretaker shook his head and in an aggrieved voice told us that the camel farm was just a hobby. “Just a hobby,” he said, “Not for eating, not for racing, not for money. Just costs money, lots of money. For hobby.” He gestured to the elaborate barns, well maintained sidewalks, gorgeous pools of water and the many, many camels. “All this for hobby,” he paused and shook his head, “I paid 18 BD* a month, a month! I live off that. That is all. I get 18. And this, all this, just for hobby. He comes once a year, the Sheikh. Hobby.”

I looked at him, chagrined, and offered a 2 BD tip. It was the best I could do, I had not come prepared with small change. I knew part of his spiel was purposeful, to cajole a tip, but I also knew that 18 BD was probably not an understatement. He had been very helpful and entertaining. He had earned it.

Oh. And I still need to ride a camel.

*BD – Bahraini Dinar. 18 BD is approx. 58 dollars (a month).