Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Desert Safari


The day started with lectures from some AUD professors and local media. The topic focused on understanding and influencing Arab publics. A television personality, Majid Mohsen and his colleague, Hafidh Aman. The two set up a workshop for us about managing a public diplomacy speech to the Arab world -- much like Obama's Cairo speech. It was an interesting exercise, particularly having two influential Arabs who were very frank with us about what the Arab public needs and wants to hear.

Later that day we met up with a group of AUD students. About 12 of these students will be coming to visit us in California the first week in April, as the second phase of this exchange program. The students had planned a desert safari for us. We piled into a caravan of jeeps and headed towards the desert. I have been to the desert before, in Egypt, but it was still surreal that just outside this booming city -- what I compare to the Las Vegas, or even LA, of the Middle East -- was a vast and desolate desert. The red sand dunes were absolutely gorgeous as camels trekked across them. It was like a film of an exotic, far- away place. THIS is what you expect to see in the Middle East. Not a Coco’s and Chilies, and yes, Dubai is full of American chain restaurants and shops. I seriously don’t feel like I’ve left LA.
 
Once we arrived at an even more desolate patch of sprawling desert, it was time for the real fun to begin. The jeeps let some of the air out of the tires so that they wouldn't pop a tire. We strapped ourselves into the jeep and our driver hit the gas, heading straight for the steepest sand dunes he could see. Sand dune riding is very popular here and can be done in dune buggies, jeeps, dirt bikes, etc. Each time we hit the top of a 20ft dune I was thrown up off my seat. I was very grateful for seatbelts at this point. It was an intense and exhilarating ride. The AUD students in my jeep turned up Egyptian dance music and were clapping their hands and singing between screams of excitement as we hit dune after dune. It was probably the most fun I'd ever had.

After about 20 minutes we reached an outpost desert camp that had been set up for us. We met other jeeps of mostly tourists and headed to the camp which had tea and dates, henna tattooing, a bar, a sheesha "lounge," camel riding, and sand boarding. It was a very cool set-up, everything a tourist would think of the Middle East. Sand boarding was really fun. Basically you get on a snow board and "ski" down a 20 foot sand dune. Dinner was served after sunset. It was a Middle Easter feast.. and then Chinese and Italian food? Then we took to the rugs and pillows in the sand and watched a very talented, but rather old, belly dancer. I don't hate though, I hope I can move like that when I'm 50! ;)

Overall, it was a lot of fun. And the AUD students we met were interesting as well. A much needed break after an intense few days of meetings.

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