x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The man who flew over the creek and other Ras Al Khaimah gems

With so much to explore closer to home, you hardly need to travel to exotic locales thousands of kilometres away.

When I was young and spoilt child in Ras Al Khaimah, I was envious of my schoolmates who flew off to exotic lands with their family every holiday.

They would return with a list of exotic locales: Switzerland, Thailand, Bora Bora.

"Where did you go?" they'd ask me.

"Dhank."

"Dank?"

"It's in Oman," I said. "We drove through Oman for two weeks. Off road. On rocks. For two weeks."

I was full of teenage self pity.

My mother, an accountant by day and artist by night, planned these trips to search for goats. She wanted a range of Gulf goats to sculpt in bronze and draw in charcoal.

She would pack up her Jeep and off we would go on the hunt for goats, beautiful or otherwise. Mostly otherwise.

At those times, I was glad that my classmates were out of the country so at least there was no chance of being seen.

I swore that when I grew up, I would travel.

Despite my teenage intentions, I now spend my holidays in my hometown, Ras Al Khaimah, exploring the local cafes and majlises. Instead of goats, I hunt for sepia memories.

I crash majlises in the hopes that people will talk to me and entertain me with their stories.

It is a little selfish, but most travel is.

My favourite holidays last year were those I spent close to home, on barrels in musky souqs or reclining on carpets listening to a friend's ageing relatives with a tea in my hand.

A few weeks ago, I met a descendant of the 15th-century seafarer ibn Majid ("My grandmother told me this and made me name my son Mayed. I don't even know the guy. He's dead a long time ago"); a retired postal guard who used a magic book to fly around the creek ("I can't do that anymore, I lost the book"); and a seafarer who explained how the taste of his beard helped him navigate the Indian Ocean ("You twist it like this. Like this, see? If it's salty, you're going the wrong way. Turn your ship around").

My favourite morning was when three old men almost came to blows over which port was the best fun in the 1950s: Dubai, Bombay or Aden. The jury is still out.

Many of us in the Arabian peninsula have grown accustomed to flying off for long weekends, but there is much that is unexplored here. Why travel 3,000 kilometres to read about great old history in a museum when I can visit the fish-market majlis to hear accounts of shipwrecks and gold smuggling?

When friends visit the UAE, I suggest they skip the Burj Khalifa so that I can show them the alleyways between coral stone buildings haunted by RAK's infamous ghost, The Noontime Donkey. I take them to rat-populated shisha cafes along the creek where the "traditional" food consists of fried nuggets, hot dogs called "Viagra sandwiches" and bowls of cold beans. It is unbeatable.

Sometimes, I worry that I will become too absorbed in my city.

I will not always have the privilege of travel but, then again, these firsthand stories of pearl divers fighting sharks and djinn are not going to be here forever.

I expect the humour and the ability to spin a good yarn will last. Yet modernisation and demographics mean that the culture that allows a stranger to be welcomed like a long-lost friend could be lost.

I hope it isn't.

Many of the things I love here will disappear soon. Change is both the tragedy and strength of the country.

Some of the best places I travelled with my mother are now impossible to reach. In other cases, they are so easy to find that they are overpopulated or reserved for the rich. Many are resorts and spas beyond my budget.

One of the most magical nights of my childhood was spent at Ras Al Jinz, the eastern most tip of the Arabian Peninsula popularly known as turtle beach. To reach it, we bumped over and around mountains for three days. Well, it was probably only a few hours, but it felt like days. We had the beach all to ourselves.

When I returned seven years ago, the beach was filled with hundreds of people. It now has restricted access, which is necessary to protect the sea turtles that nest there.

My mother knew that such treasures and adventures could be found close to home. I thought she was lost in our own backyard. In hindsight, I realise that she knew where she was going the whole time.

 

azacharias@thenational.ae