Tuesday, July 8, 2008

By the sea, In the desert

Travel in its best is a window into different cultures and a peek into the life of others. As travelers we love to experience life as the natives, enjoy their local delicacies and surprises. In the span of 6 months we have witnessed two different cultures and surprisingly or not-so-surprisingly were able to connect both of them. A small portion of the old time charm from these cultures were sliced and served to us hungry tourists. Ofcourse as any offering to tourists there was a generous helping of commercialization added to it.

We were left with memories we would treasure for a long time and will we repeat the same experiences if we ever head out to the destinations again? Read on,

Hawaiian Luau:

This was the first and truly Hawaiian experience we wanted to dip our toes into! Luau in short is the Hawaiian party and way of celebration. Anything from a graduation, to a wedding are celebrated as luaus where the family gathers together in the backyard (which often happens to be a pristine beach) to feast on specially prepared party foods. Today what Hawaii offers to its many tourists is a commercial version of the family party. There are a number of organizations that offer a luau experience for its visitors and we chose to experience our luau with Germaine's.

Our trip started when our cheerful hostess dressed up in a shirt that screams Hawaii greets us with touristy cheap shell leis. We board one of the many buses plying from many corners of the small island towards party central. The bus obviously filled with tourists like us stop at different hotels to pick up other excited guests. As we head out of town, our hostess turns on a microphone and starts her own stand-up comedy show while dispensing in between facts about Hawaii, luau food and customs. She also found time to make note of people celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and ofcourse the honeymooners.

A fun-filled 30-40 minutes drive later we were at our destination - palm trees, a abandoned light house, clean blue waters, the setting sun... everything picture perfect - the way a mainlander dreams of Hawaii. At the luau, the first thing done was the prerequisite photograph by a professional photographer and then we moved on to the open area to get seated. Typical luau seating is on straw mats spread out on the sand and low tables. Of course being a commercial operation, our luau offered both traditional and modern table/chair seating.

Within minutes of being seated, activities started. Dancers depicted dances from different Polynesian countries which share the tradition of luaus. Graceful dances, fire dancers wooed the audience. The dances were all short not more than few minutes each, mainly to keep the attention of even the most uninterested person in the audience. And in between the dances, there were announcers who explained the origin and history of the dance form and the mood of the song.

Strewn seamlessly inbetween these dances were a mention of the birthday babies, the honeymooners and those celebration other occasions (anniversaries, family reunion, engagement etc). In fact, most people come to Hawaii as a celebration, typically weddings, honeymoons and anniversaries form a big chunk of it. A special mention indeed makes the day and the celebrating guests got a orchid lei and some freebies! It kept the guests occupied and quite a few ooohs and aahs were there to greet the honeymooners and the newly engaged! An army mom with her son got a big round of applause.. Inshort, they brought in the family/belongingness feeling that luau's are all about to the 300+ strangers on the beach - quite an achievement. Typically, the luau being a meeting up friends and family over food event, there is bound to be news and updates and celebrations which the commercial luau tried to replicate.

The most important part was the luau food. Hawaiian delicacies were spread out and there was quite a spread. You can read more about Hawaiian luau food here. The specialty of the evening was the Kalua Pig - which is basically a whole pig, salted and wrapped and cooked into a underground oven. As a commercial luau, the removal of the cooked pig is a ritual by itself. Drums are beaten, lamps are lit and two men compete with each other on the number of hot burning stones they can remove with their bare hands. And this is where the women guests go ga-ga! It was like watching a chick-flick - well-built men, stripped down to the waist, wearing exotic jewelery and handling burning hot stones and bring food.... what more does a woman want? The food at the commercial luau is at best "mediocre" as expected. As the buffet opens, there is a mad scramble as 300 odd guests make their way down (it is important to note that most of the guests had by then cleaned up the free 3 alcoholic drinks tab at the bar and were drowning in Mai Tais, Blue Hawaiis and Pina Coladas).

As the guests picked on the food (note that I said pick and not eat), the organizers keep us entertained with stories and dance and then start scouring for hula wanna-be dancers! Women of all ages and shapes, take their first lessons in front of everyone and then it was the turn of the men! And here the routine and rather predictable way of entertainment being picking on one individual and making fun of his dance/hip moves when compared to a professional dancer reigned. The guy who was "the chosen one" the day we were there was a jolly good sport and he took everything with a smile. But personally, I find it quite humiliating and embarrassing.. kind of like the reality shows...

Time flew and soon it was time to pick up memorabilia (oh they have tons of those stuff, cheap cocktail glasses, tees, shell-leis) and board our buses ( all buses are numbered and you get back on the one you were initially on). The hostess tries in vain to bring life into half-asleep, half-drunk passengers by asking questions and giving gifts but in vain! In fact, on our bus we had one very-drunk grandma who kept insulting the hostess quite badly! Oh! all in the name of luau and a Hawaiian experience!

Dubai Desert Safari:

Unlike the luau, the desert safari can be distinctly divided into two parts - one the modern and touristy part and two the cultural and traditional part. The concept of desert safari is a mix of dune bashing (off-roading along the sand dunes) and a peek into the Bedouin (Arab desert nomads) tribal life. It is one of the biggest tourist attractions in current-day Dubai.

We were picked up (behind schedule) in front of our hotel in a Toyota Land Cruiser. We were the last of the 6 guests in the vehicle. Our driver was dressed up in Arabic standard wear, a flowing white Dishdasha and a Keffiyeh. Within seconds we were in and off. The driver (whose name remains unknown) tuned on to one of the radio stations playing some Arabic tunes and we kept ourselves entertained with the views of Burj Dubai playing hide-n-seek amongst the smog and random sights. Some time later, our driver tuned on to the India Vs. Srilanka Asia Cup Final match, unmindful of the fact that that other than us no one understood what was happening. In fact, at some point of time in the middle of dune bashing, one of the guests requested the driver to turn off the cricket commentary and turn-on some music to help her feel better during the roller coaster bashing and the driver refused not-so-politely!

Coming back, after nearly 45 mts of driving out of Dubai we were off-road, and were greeted with a sight of more than 50 4x4's. We got down to feel the sand on our feet (and it invariably finds its way to our faces) and our driver started letting the air our of the tires. Soon we were dune bashing. Typically, no vehicle travels alone. Vehicles from the same commercial tour organizer travel together in a line and dune bashing is an experience that is best experienced. I am a roller-coaster fan and dune bashing did not give me the much loved butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling when I am on a roller-coaster but the effect was something different. It was kind of like go-karting and hitting a very hard barrier. It was fun and a bit scary at times. A good 15 minutes into the dune bashing and when the weak-at-heart and stomach start to wonder how much longer, we stop.

Miles of sand dunes ever shifting before the eye such a different landscape from the pristine beach in Hawaii, the sand felt same but very different. And in the middle there were 8 white land cruisers and around 50 tourists furiously clicking pictures and gulping down the water. After 10 minute break we were off again heading towards our camp. More dunes, more bashing, a few stray camels, a few settlements in the middle of nowhere and suddenly a fenced area with a stage and big lights greeted us.

The camp set in the desert was a sight in itself. Glad to be out of the rather-cramped vehicle, we got down and took in the sight around us. Miles and miles of sand, a few ATVs, the camp and a camel farm were the only things we could see. Three camels were lined up for rides and excited tourists had a day. Personally I felt the camels looked sad and tired might be it was just me. But we opted to sit on the sand and enjoy the sight and sounds around us. A few people headed out on ATV's and other few started sandboarding. All modern additions to the experience of the nomadic Arabic way of life.

After a while, we made our way into the camp and there we saw a table set up with two flasks. No name cards, no one near-by to ask and we did drink them. I assume they were Arabian coffee (they did not have the distinct coffee aroma and had more a herbal smell to it) or some kind of date flavored drink. A little beyond there was a man on a stove frying hot dumplings. Drizzled with date syrup the dumplings were out of this world. A little googling research tells me that these dumplings are called Looqemat.

As we sat drooling over the dumplings, I spotted one of the guests with fresh mehandi on her forehand. And I started hunting down the henna-decorated and I spotted her. In one of the corners, almost hidden from public view, sat this young lady in a Abaya drawing designs. I sat down to get a design done and tried to make conversation. The woman was stubbornly silent. The few questions she answered she spoke good English but I could not understand why she refused to make conversation. It was then I spotted a changing room where Arabic costumes were available for men and women to try on and click pictures. A photographer - a must in anything that is related to tourists around the world was ofcourse present. It was like a little treasure hunt, each cabin had some small activity and most of them were free (included in the cost) and there was no one guiding us to these - A sheesha corner, a small memorabilia stall, sand art table, a water stand, a falcon.. The falcon had its feet tied and provided a good photo-op to all the guests.

Around 50 guests in a camp that can easily accommodate 300 roamed around and after an hour or so, boredom struck. I played the game of putting incorrigible Tamil lyrics to Arabic songs echoing on some really bad quality sound system with my husband who was busy photographing! Probably this is where they can improve on? learn something from their Hawaiian counterparts on how to keep the guests entertained while the food gets cooked?

Soon darkness came and the lamps provided a gorgeous glow over the place and it was quite romantic! Imagine this, him and her seated on a mat, in front of them - a low table with a votive candle shedding soft light, the setting sun, sand dunes all around, music with lyrics you cannot understand ... it feels like you are the only two in the world.. throw in some heavenly Looqemat drizzled with date syrup... perfect for a date/special occasion! As we waited holding hands and getting rather irritated a projector was set up and some really bad quality pictures captured by the resident photographer (a Chinese(?) guy) were shown, with hopes of tempting people to buy.

Losing interest in the photos we started people watching (the next best part of travel!) and observing the activities the camp employees were engaged in. Silently they floated behind in their traditional wear carrying out their duties in getting the food ready and ofcourse chatting with each other in Malayalam (oh yeah! most of the workers were Indians dressed up! What a fun job! A fancy dress everyday!)

The food was served. A mix of Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine.. samosas, hummus, pita, falafels, shawarmas, kebobs, fattoush, tabbuloueh , cheese spring rolls were the ones we could identify from our frequent trips to Mediterranean restaurants in Houston. We ate, drank our rationed soda (one can per person), had some custard and payasam (kheer) and waited for action (spelled belly dancer)

The stars were out now and we took our seat around the stage and there she appeared! The belly dancer, clad in green n silver she looked stunning. The first music started and she started dancing (or is it shimming?) and it was beautiful. Next she pulled in some men to dance with her. The men tried to shake their non-existent hips! One of the hosts/organizers a man in white, then started pulling all men on to the stage, by force and got the women chantting "Ah Ah Ah" Then the host put in some moves with the belly dancer more like the way a man drooling over a good looking skimpily clad woman! Then the host started pulling all the women rather forcefully on to the stage to dance a song later the men were on again and then the dancer n host disappeared!

As we sat back expecting something big and exciting, the big lights came on and we could hear the engines of the Land Cruisers on signaling it is time for us to leave. Rather surprised by the abrupt end to the show, we walked back towards 10 white Land Cruisers not knowing which one was ours. Our driver spotted us looking rather lost and guided us back to the vehicle and within minutes we were back on road (we did hit some dunes on the desert sand with full tire pressure before we were back on paved roads) We tried to make conversation with our driver and asked him about the cricket match. He just mentioned India lost and lapsed into silence.

And soon the city lights of Dubai were there welcoming us leaving us feeling the sea or rather desert of difference a few kilometers can do!
The desert safari has options for overnight camp stays which we could not avail due to the climate (it is typically not offered in summer).

The desert safari in Dubai and Hawaiian Luau in Honolulu both offered things that were so similar yet different. The luau obviously was more commercialized and marketed unlike the desert safari where I felt so much more can be done.
But both are experiences that one should not miss!

1 comment:

Team Members said...

Nice pictures and thanks for sharing.

Have a nice day!