Friday, March 28, 2008

Camel on the Hofuf

The Gnomads are having a restful day recovering from an exciting but tiring day out yesterday.

Along with some colleagues from work, we took a trip to the Al Ahsa oasis, one of the largest oases in the world and, apparently, the source of the best dates in the world. We got up at 5 am to be ready to leave by 6 to get there for 7.30. The oasis was vast, and I dont think I had seen so many date palms in my life before even if you added them all up. There were actual irrigation canals as wide as the road, and everywhere was green.

Our reasons for going? The town of Hofuf is built at the Oasis and has one of the world's oldest and largest camel markets anywhere. The market starts at dawn and winds up around 9am, because by then its just getting way too hot. This is the Arabian desert after all.

There were more camels than you can sheikh a stick at in every size, colour and state of cleanliness. Some were dressed up in racing silks (I kid you not) some were saddled and harnessed for riding, some just had a basic harness and some had no trappings at all. Some did appear to have been comprehensively rolled in camel poo, but these were the exception. The camels ranged from white to almost black through every shade of brown you can imagine. It was a fragrant occasion and the gnomads had to step carefully to avoid the camel droppings (which were pretty dry) and the puddles left by the camels (which were not).

Camels were being auctioned in the inimitable style of livestock auctions the world over. The locals were very friendly, even though they had almost no English and the Gnomads had almost no Arabic. Contrary to expectation may of the camel traders there were happy to have their pictures taken. To one side of the market was an open barn like structure where the bedouin women were ensconced, busy making and trading the accoutrements for the camels, including everything from shiny silver tassles to decorate the animals to complete saddle and harness sets. The women ere spinning and braiding and conducting traditional camel related crafts whilst trading, but alas they would not allow photographs. These people were very traditional Bedou. The women fully veiled and with hennah on their hands, The men in their dish dashes many of them with their faces covered against the dust.

Several of the traders had saddled camels and so the Gnomads negotiated for the Gnomadette to take a camel ride. The first individual wanted 150 riyals (about 45 USD or 22 UKP) just to allow his camel to be sat on! Negotiation and haggling followed to get the price down to 30 riyals. This still being too expensive for the Gnomad's retentive purse, the Gnomads walked away. Later we went back and haggled again and the Gnomadette got her camel ride for just 10 riyals. The Gnomad was feeling very chuffed with his bartering skills and many other members of the party then took camel rides at the same price. Watching camels being loaded into trucks was quite an education. the camels are hobbled and made to sit down. they are then put into a harness and lifted by crane into the back of a truck. The camels did not seem at all distressed by the process.

As the camel market started to wind up the party all took to the bus and headed into Hofuf town to look around the old souk, Qasr Ibrahim fort and then to a no-star hotel for a cold beverage and the use of (relatively) civilised toilets. We had made a pit-stop on the journey out to Hofuf, but many of the ladies refused to use the facilities as they were very basic indeed, extremely fragrant and harbouring a mass of airborne wildlife of the insanitary buzzing variety.

the souk was disappointing. Apparently there had been a massive fire about a year ago that had pretty much destroyed the old souk, some of it had been over 500 years old. There were plenty of little antique and junk shops and many little shops stocked with the sorts of goods associated with a traditional souk, such as spices, incense, tailoring services and supplies and very cheap plastic goods. The old souk was in the process of being rebuilt and is expected to be back in use by this time next year. The fort was massive but closed. Apparently it doesn't open before 4 pm and we didnt feel like waiting that long.

The hotel was very civilised in a decayed, post imperial, third-world kind of way. the Orange juice was actually freshly squeezed from fresh, ripe, chilled oranges and was very good indeed. Eyes, noses and throats were a bit full of dust so a drink was very welcome as was a sit-down in the air conditioned dining room. Much recovered the party moved on to the next phase, a trip to the Jabal Al Qarah caves. It was now past 11 am and it was getting hot, over 30c. our bus took us out to the caves accompanied by a local man, Abdullah.

Abdullah was a workmate of a friend of a friend of one of the trip organisers. We had originally planned to lunch at the Intercontinental hotel in Hofuf, but their prices had become extravagant, so the friend of a friend contacted Abdullah to see if he knew of a good place for Europeans and Americans to get lunch. Abdullah decide the easiest thing for him to do was to join the trip at the no star hotel, accompany us to the caves and show us around and then take us to the lunch venue he had in mind. This is typical of ordinary Arabs. There is a great tradition of hospitality and nothing is too much for a guest. It is such a shame that the city dwelling Arabs seem to be letting this tradition die out in the metropolises.

The caves were in a series of sandstone rock formations eerily carved into surreal shapes by the wind and natural erosion. They were quite splendid if somewhat marred by graffiti, which is the scourge of any modern town-dwelling society. The caves themselves were surprisingly cool and very pleasant inisde. we walked for about a kilometre through the caves and then, hunger getting the better of us we decided to adjourn for lunch.

Abdullah took us to a splendid, modern, clean hotel with proper toilet facilities and (it turned out) an excellent restaurant called the Topaz Sapori Ditalia. as a group we decided on traditional Lebanese starters for everyone, bread, tabouleh, fatoosh, humus, stuffed vine leaves etc which was extremely good and this was followed by individual choices of main course. Almost everyone had Italian, although there was a wide range of other foods on the menu. The Gnomad's Tagliatelli Alfredo was simply the best he has had anywhere and the Gnomadette only managed to eat a quarter of her pizza. The rest of the party had an equally high opinion of the food and after over an hour and a half we returned to the bus for the journey home.

All in all, the Gnomads and the rest of the party had a splendid day out organised by Meg And Lyle (thanks guys) and made even better by the generosity and hospitality of the ordinary Arab folks we met, especially Abdullah.