It's the start of a new year, 2014, the Year of the Horse. The snowdrifts are creeping up the trunks of our fruit trees. The silence of the wintry landscape is broken only by the occasional voices of chickadees and whiskey jacks, and of the dogs barking at distant coyotes and not-so-distant moose. This makes it difficult to recall being in the Middle East just weeks ago. The preparation, the trip itself, returning and recuperating (Kai brought home a cold bug and generously shared it with his folks), took a good chunk of time and energy out of our year, including the entire Christmas season. Sometimes it seems as if the whole thing was just part of a dream, or a movie starring familiar actors whose names I can't quite remember.
It was an extraordinary experience, one which we are still digesting. I was never a part of anything so huge when I was Kai's age. I don't think he fully understands that not everyone gets the opportunity to travel to the other side of the planet, or to participate in such a large scale international competition, all before the age of 11. He says it was cool.
One thing is for certain - Kai will carry a part of this experience with him for the rest of his life, as will myself and Scott, but for Kai it will undoubtedly loom much larger. One of those unforgettable formative blips in a young one's existence.
Left Al Ain sadly, a beautiful oasis in the desert. Palm tree-lined throughways, low-lying burnt orange buildings a few shades lighter than the ever-present sand dunes visible just beyond the rooftops. We did manage to get to the desert by hiring a taxi to drive us to the city limits and wait for us as we ran barefoot into the dunes. The thrill was tempered somewhat by nearby SUV-driving yahoos (similar to some of the snowmobile-driving ones back home) but we managed to climb and roll far enough away to get some sense of the mind-blowing vastness of the desert.
Visited the world's largest shopping mall in search of souvenirs, but were defeated by the seemingly endless covered walkway (serviced by a string of moving sidewalks) that connected the metro station to the mall proper. By the time the actual shops began to appear, all we could think of was finding food and escaping. We did manage an escape of sorts, and ended up in the mall's theatre complex watching the Hobbit, with Arabic subtitles. On the way out, we did see the mall's aquarium, which must have been about 3 floors high and housed stingrays, sharks and eels among countless other forms of marine life. Quite stunning, and surreal, sitting amidst Starbucks, the Gap and other familiar retail names.
Still needed to pick up souvenirs so the following day we headed back to the old part of the city, this time starting from Bur Dubai, then crossing the Creek by abra (water taxi) to Deira, which we'd explored the first time. Lots of narrow alleyways, colourful storefronts with apartments above, noisy hawkers. Kai had his first drink of coconut juice from a green coconut, wandered through the Spice Souk and Gold Souk (one of the biggest gold markets in the world), had some tasty paneer and mutton kebabs, back to the hostel.
Got to know the metro system, where there is a women and children's car which men are supposed to stay out of during peak hours, as well as a Gold car, which is roomier and costs more. Every stop is announced in both Arabic and English, the diversity of passengers is fascinating, everyone is very polite and quick to give up seats to women with children. I don't remember seeing any elderly people on the metro. I read that expats must leave the country once they are no longer employed. And perhaps Emirati elders take cabs.
Our final day in the UAE was spent relaxing on the sands of the Arabian Gulf before the gruelling trip home. We rented an umbrella for 10 Dh and staked out a spot on the sparsely populated beach. The Hungarian couple who had given us directions to the beach had declined to swim (too cold. Only Russians swim there at this time of year. And perhaps a few Canadians, they had chuckled). The water was cooler than I had expected, but lovely once in. I realized I was floating effortlessly for the first time in my life. Salt. We swam, Kai built fortresses, across the water from Iran, and Iraq.
The metro was packed, and the hostel manager was unable to call a taxi to the airport for us due to the crowds heading to the World's Tallest Building (the Burj Khalifa, which we had seen from the World's Largest Shopping Mall) to see Biggest Fireworks Display Ever. We did make it to the airport, dragging our suitcases through the crowds at the metro, and departed from Dubai at 11pm, just missing the New Year's extravaganza (see Dubai New Year's fireworks on YouTube)
The bright sunshine, the sub -35C mornings, the pots of soup on the crackling woodstove, are the things shaping our thoughts right now. And it's all good.