Sunday, February 14, 2010

Getting Stuck Ain't So Bad

The roads around Northwestern Ontario can get pretty rough. I've gotten used to potholes, flying rocks, ruts, washboard, mud, oil pan scrapes, fish tailing, and everything else that goes along with Canadian backwoods driving. Much of the time, I drove these roads in a regular ol' car, never a 4x4. The family had a number of vehicles over the years that were a bit larger, with the biggest probably being a Suburban. But, most of the time, smaller vehicles did the trick. The terrain in Qatar, in many ways, is not all that different when off of the main roads. Most of the trails I've gone down have been hard packed, a bit rocky, and fairly easy to navigate, just like the one I found myself on the other day.

At the end of a shabby, neglected paved road north of Doha, after passing an Oryx farm, some twisted, collapsing buildings, dead date palms and abandoned irrigation equipment, is just such a road. The terrain looked very flat. In the distance were flames atop giant towers-something to do with the oil and gas industry. What they are, I don't know. But, I thought that would be a great area to head to. I wasn't one hundred percent sure where I was. I suspected that if I headed that way, I would make it to the Gulf coast. It turns out I was WAY off. I wasn't close to the coast at all. Everything was going along just fine. Just driving. The road was pretty good in fact, until....wham, a sand pit. Now, when I headed towards this sand pit, I thought I was going fast enough, and I thought it wasn't all that deep, and I didn't think it would be a problem, but as it turned out, again, I was WAY off. I got myself stuck and stuck good. Tires spun, sand flew and swearing ensued. The sun was starting to go down, I was half way between the road I left and the giant fire sticks that I was heading towards. And, as far as I could see, there was no one around. At least, that's how it seemed. I got out and began shoveling sand with my hands. It reminded me of all those times I've gotten stuck in the snow over the years, only it was much warmer and the sand was much lighter. The idea of being stuck out in the desert for a night was much more appealing than being stuck out in -30 degrees in a snowbank. As I dug, a Toyota Land Cruiser and a smaller Toyota truck drove towards me. Where they came from, I have no clue. But, there they were and I was pretty happy to see them. The Land Cruiser stopped and out jumped a smiling fellow in a black thobe, with his hand extended. Mohammed was his name. In his Land Cruiser was his wife and two of his children, both girls. In the other truck, was four of his other kids, all boys, all under 16, and all taking their turn driving. So, everyone jumped out and soon my vehicle was surrounded by this large Qatari family, all scratching their heads and trying to figure out how to get my little car out of the sand. Everyone seemed to have an idea, or at least this is the impression I got, seeing as I don't speak or understand Arabic.

First, we tried pushing. Nope, that didn't work. That only got the car deeper in the sand. I am grateful to Mohammed's kids who pushed their hearts out, even the little girls who were so proud to be helping out, but, it didn't work. Rope! That was next. Out of the Land Cruiser came a pretty thin, worn looking rope. I could see this was not going to end well. And it didn't. SNAP went the rope, and the car hadn't moved a millimeter. Next up, putting rocks under the tires and trying to get some grip. This is where the girls really kicked into action. They started scrambling around looking for rocks, bringing handfuls of them over. Again, they were so proud and so excited to be doing their part. Sadly, however, it didn't work either.

That's when another Land Cruiser pulled up. An older gentlemen in a beautiful brown thobe jumped out, smiling. He was met with cheek kisses by the family, a showing of respect to an elder, even though they didn't know the guy. He had a bigger, better rope! Yeah! So, attach the rope we did. TWANG! That didn't hold either. Things were looking a bit grim. By now, the sun was down and we were deep into civil twilight. Alright, so, we were back to pushing again. Turns out though that this new gentleman was pretty darn big and, even better, strong. He was much stronger it seemed than six young children. Him and I took to the front of the vehicle, rocking back and forth, while Mohammed was behind the steering wheel, turning the tires back and forth. This combination WORKED! Oh, thank goodness it worked. And with that, my car was freed from it's sandy trap! It was free to continue.

So, Mohammed says to me, "Come with us!" "Okay," I said. He knew a good way to get back to the main highway. They were going that direction anyway, but on the way we were going to take a stop to check out the the older gentleman's camels. Mohammed's son Hamad would take the wheel because he knew where to go, which left one of his younger brothers driving the small truck. Off we went, following two Land Cruisers, and followed by the other kids in the truck. Hamad was quite the kid. Soft spoken, intelligent, polite and mature. He had gone to school in London for several years where he perfected his English. He liked American football and played for a team at school. His family was out in the desert that day looking for desert trifles which appear after the rains, but they found it was a bit too early in the season yet. He talked about his family's boat, and their fishing trips. They would catch fish, like Tuna, sometimes taking what extra they had to the market. They were clearly well off, so they didn't have to, but, still, it seemed to be something they wanted to do. It was interesting talking to him, a proud Qatari who enjoys the best of both world's: modern development and ancient traditions.

It wasn't too far to the camels. About 50 of them were penned in at a spot far from anything and anyone else. It was the end of the day, and the animals who were grazing were now being rounded up and tucked into their beds. When we stopped, Hamad told me it was time for them to pray. I left them alone and headed over to see the camels as the family took part in their ritual, first washing in the water provided by a tank in the middle of the corrals, and then facing towards Mecca, reciting a passage from the Koran, kneeling and bowing. There was a peace that hung over the small camp where the camel herder's lived, taking care of the older gentleman's "flock" of camels. I don't know if "flock" is correct. It seems to work there. I should check and see what it really is.

This time of year is when baby camels are born. With cooler weather and more abundant food and water, it is a good time to come into the world. Like most baby animals, baby camels can only be described as adorable. They are playful, fuzzy and look awkward with their long, long legs and comparatively tiny bodies. And there were a number of young ones, including one that must have been born just a few days before. Camels range from a very light colour to a dark chocolate brown. All colours were represented, as were all sizes, from males that were about 4 or 5 feel taller than to me, to more slender, sleek smaller females, and down to the young newborns. Shy at first, they became a bit more curious of me. One giant, dark brown male lowered his massive, long neck down so he could take a closer look, sniffing me and eying me up. He was a gentle giant, with a certain beauty that one normally associates with horses.

After prayers, a circle was formed. The men of the camp, Mohammed, his sons and daughters all sat and tea was served. Mohammed, an engineer who studied at Qatar University and in London, who now worked in the petroleum industry, was a modern man with a rich understanding and appreciation for tradition. He knew all about camels. He knew the desert. This was his land and he was a product of it. He told me about camels milk and how important it is to Bedouins, about how concentrated and full of protein it was. It also did not need pasteurization. He pointed out how the camels were sitting, with the wind behind them so as not to get sand in their eyes and mouth. He talked about the changes that have come to Qatar in the last few decades, since oil and gas production came into full swing. He was a proud, kind, gentle man, smart, well spoken, generous and humble. It was a pleasure being there with the whole group, sitting in the sand, in a circle, the flaming sticks in the background, the stars starting to come out above, and the camels behind us. There was no wind. There was only peace and quiet.

At the end of tea, Hamad took control of the wheel again as Mohammed led us out of the desert towards the main highway. When we arrived to the side of the road, we shook hands and I asked if there was any way I could repay his kindness. He said, "No, this is what we Arab's do. I did it for me." It made him feel good. It was his good deed, his way of showing his respect, his compassion and proving that he was a good man. This was a traditional act of kindness. We exchanged phone numbers as I thanked him again. He asked if I knew my way from there. I did. And then we parted ways.

I drove home knowing I just had an amazing experience. If I hadn't got stuck in that spot at that time, I would have missed out meeting Mohammed and his family. Although I hope not to get stuck too often, that mishap started a series of events that helped to create a memories that will last a lifetime. I feel as though I experienced something that too many people don't have the opportunity to experience. It helped me feel pretty good about humanity. It made me feel pretty good, period.

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