The first streaks of orange were lighting up the evening sky, but it wasn’t quite dusk yet. The undulating sand dunes that flashed past me as I drove along the Dubai-Al Ain highway looked as though they were made from gold dust in that light. Cruising in the third lane, I was in no rush.
“I want to hug this weather,” a radio jockey said on his show. The child-like desperation in his voice crackled through the car's speakers. It seemed as though he wanted to get out from his studio.
He probably didn’t, but I did. The first exit I saw was near a mofussil desert town called Al Lisaili. I stopped at a fuel station to grab a coffee and enjoy the winter breeze.
I ought to have continued on the highway to home, just like the flock of birds flying overhead against the setting sun and darkening sky.
As I took the first sip of the sugary Americano wobbling in the cupholder of my car, I noticed a long, unknown road disappearing into the night to my right. Why not, I thought.
I drove along the empty road for a few minutes and, suddenly, I was not alone any more. A grunt of camels greeted me, followed by an escalating murmur of men.
As I rolled down the window in anticipation, I saw it was hundreds of camels and hundreds of men. The animals were draped with checkered blankets over their humps to keep them warm, while the men wore white and brown turbans and long white thobes.
It felt surreal to think I was only about 50 kms away from the world’s tallest tower. The only other example that came to mind was the time I took the metro from New Delhi to Old Delhi’s Chawri Bazaar. I placed my hand on the railing as the escalator ascended from the bowels of the earth and slammed me straight into one of the world’s noisiest and most colourful markets.
But here, in the Dubai desert, I was catapulted into a different world altogether — not one of chaos or technology, or Netflix’s misplaced notions of the city, but one of sepia, of folklore. I soon learnt I had driven myself into a camel fair. The men had come from Sudan and were camping here, awaiting buyers for their animals.
At the margins of this desert camp, as I walked shyly towards the turbaned men, young Sudanese camel herders jostled around me. I confused them with my broken Arabic, but a smile is often a universal language, so it didn’t take us long to befriend each other.
A young, towering boy grabbed my Canon 5D Mark III camera and pointed to its viewfinder. “Show me how to get this damn thing started,” he seemed to say.
The camels sat in huddles, each group tethered to pegs sprouting out from various sand dunes. One group of animals was draped in blue, another in black and a third in white. Some camels wore nothing – which is not an indecent thing to do among the four-legged.
Most didn't bother when I inched closer to them with my camera. It’s not that we don’t see you, they probably thought; we just deny your existence.
The cold wind bristled over the dunes. I made my way towards a group of men who had lit a bonfire. As my feet dug into the shifting sands, the call to prayer rang out in the distance.
Men scattered to ready themselves for prayer. Even a few camels that had been standing, bent down on their front knees and sat down.
Feeling a certain spiritual refreshment, I left the camp soon after. As I drove on the fast lane, I had to urge myself to get back into the frame of mind that adheres to speed limits and lane indicators. In front of me, a glittering Dubai skyline was making itself felt. Behind me, I imagined, the indifferent camels and giggling young men wondered if my being among them meant something.
In any case, I was glad to have gone down the road usually not taken.