It is a kind of alchemy. As the sun sets, and its glow flows out across the desert, the dunes that in the full light of day had been dun coloured, inert, dull even, transform into waves of molten copper.
To drive into the desert in late afternoon was blissful. The emptiness. And more emptiness. AND NO PEOPLE. We had come to Dubai for a break from Nairobi living. Sometimes life there could become too nerve-fraying. During the Moi era, security was always an issue in Kenya. Whenever the political temperature heated up – which was often during the 1990s’ donor push for multi-party democracy – so the crime wave spiked. It was mostly white collar crime too – run by crooked lawyers, senior officials and cops – all people who should know better.
Car-jacking was a speciality, and the diplomatic and aid community were particular targets with their newly imported 4 x 4s that were shipped in with each fresh posting. So it was that High Commission cocktail party talk mostly involved expats’ tales of having their vehicles stolen in hair-raising scenarios, usually by men with AK47s who had followed them into their driveways as they were returning home. Then there were the stories from Graham’s Kenyan colleagues. If they were driving project vehicles they would be car-jacked AND taken hostage for hours on end. We never did understand why car-jackers did this – driving around the city for hours until they finally decided to dump the unfortunate hostage in some god-forsaken wasteland.
Then there were aggravations such as coming home from a four-day seminar to find the house without electricity and the freezer dripping into the hall. In our absence some officious meter reader had been let into the property to read the meter. He misidentified our house number and claimed we had not paid our electricity bill. He then went off with our house fuses, and it took a week of hideous argy bargy with closed-minded officialdom to have the power restored.
They claimed they had never heard of a meter man taking the fuses with him. Usually, they said, he would simply hide them somewhere handy, to be reinstated once the bill had been paid. In the meantime, nothing in our house worked since everything was electric. And all the security devices which the High Commission insisted we had, pretty much useless.
We have paid our bill, we kept saying to the electricity men. We have the receipt. These were the wrong words. Kitu kidogo were the right words. A little something. But as we didn’t play, we had to wait. Eventually a couple of very pleasant engineers took pity on us, and called in to see what was going on. After remonstrating at the lack of fuses as if this was our fault, they decided to make some new ones, standing on the kitchen stoop by the fuse box, winding wire round spools while admiring my crop of Tuscan kale, a variety they had never seen before but were much taken with. It was nice to have the lights back on. Playing scrabble by candle-light might seem vaguely romantic, but it wasn’t really, not after the first night.
And on top of the power-out dilemma, the weather had been vile – an El Nino special of weeks of endless torrential rain – people drowned, homes and whole villages washed away, impassable roads, the place unnaturally cold and grey and impossibly WET. It made us realise that we had very little to complain of. At least we had a roof over our head, and it only leaked a bit in the sitting-room corner.
But then the long wet spell next promoted an outbreak of ‘Nairobi Fly’ or Nairobi Eye – a rove beetle that causes extremely painful skin conditions if you happen to brush it away with too much enthusiasm, and then use the same hand when touching some area of bare flesh. For a time the whole city seemed under siege from this nasty little bug, the press burbling with horror stories of men whose private parts had become horribly inflamed due to some inadvertent contact. (Er, hem).
So it was good to fly away. It was good to spend a night in the desert even if our Tanzanian guide did lie in the back of the 4 x 4 with the door open and snore all night. It was good to get up at dawn to a bright, crisp day and walk alone through the dunes, and to see for miles and miles, without a soul in sight, only the distant blue spine of Oman’s El Hajar Mountains. It made the spirits soar, all that aloneness, as if you could face anything, though a month there might have truly done the trick.
P.S. In case you are wondering, the green areas in the last photo are plots of alfalfa – high octane fodder for Dubai’s racing camels which are also reared in the desert on small camel farms.
copyright 2017 Tish Farrell
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