Monday, January 28, 2013

A tale of two Liwas

Whew - finally back in Abu Dhabi proper after (disgruntley) staying an hour north of town for three nights due to issues with site access (no permission) and canceling of reservations (hotel refused to cancel). I didn't have readily-available wifi access in that hotel, so I have a lot to catch up on today.

On Thursday afternoon, the whole crew was invited to the home of Hadirh, our amazing logistics guy. He was cooking dinner for us and planned to take us on a tour of the huge dunes at sunset. Two taxis' full of people were going to leave at 12, and another car was leaving a little later. We were one seat shy of fitting the first round of people, so I offered to travel with the crew in the rental car that was leaving later. And thus begins the tale of two Liwas...
In the rental car, we had an awesome group of people: Kamila (Poland), Kersten (Austria), Robert (England), Steve Crooks (England but now USA), and me. We had a rough idea of where we were going to meet Hadirh - the Liwa hotel - but surprisingly nobody got directions. As we were driving, we noticed that there were signs for two hotels with Liwa in the name - Liwa and Tilal Liwa. At that point in our travels, they were both in roughly the same direction so we kept driving. Steve then got a text from an unknown number saying that they were at the wrong hotel so we called Hadirh to ask where to go. Hadirh said 'go to the Liwa hotel, not the Liwa hotel'. Steve got a confused look on his face, asked him to repeat, and Hadirh said the same thing. After some more back and forth, Hadirh finally said 'stay straight, don't go left/right' and just as he said that, we were at the freeway interchange where we had to make a decision. We kept going straight to Liwa. We come to find out that the other group went right and ended up at Tilal Liwa, without transportation to Hadirh's. Our resulting adventures ended up being similar, but completely different at the same time.

On a side note...One baffling thing that I learned since being here is that there's a presidential decree to have green belts along every freeway. The majority of the plants are palm trees. The palms are not adapted to growing just anywhere in the desert, so they need to be watered. I've heard estimates that each tree requires $1,000-$3,000 worth of water a year, with all of the water coming from desalinization plants. Multiply that times thousands upon thousands of trees......
At some point, however, the greenbelt stopped and the view of the dunes began.
 We eventually make it to Liwa, meet Hadirh, get in his car, and continue on our adventure. He takes us to his cousin's camel farm. The male camel was not very happy to see us, but all of the females rushed to the fence to be rubbed and scratched.
The road to Hadirh's farm
large male camel
Three sweet ladies fighting for my attention
Pet me!
The sheep, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with us.
 We loaded up and continued down the road to the expansive dunes. The following photos do not do this area justice. The colors were spectacular and the dune shapes were amazing.
 After a bit more driving, we end up at a huge dune where people on motorcycles, dune buggies, and cars go crazy (Rich - this made me think of the White Sands place in Nevada, only on steroids)
 We proceed a little bit further and Hadirh stops to let air out of the tires - we're going to have our own dune adventure!
[I will eventually insert a video here when I get a faster internet connection to upload it] soon as this video ends, the car starts to slide to the left and we end up stuck at the bottom of a pit. After some attempts to get out, we end up thoroughly stuck!
We all get out of the car and Hadirh starts to figure out what to do next. None of us are worried at all - he's such a resourceful man - and we start to explore dunes. We were one night shy of the full moon.
beetle tracks on the dune top
Eventually some help comes. After one failed attempt to move the car, a fully equipped Jeep was called in. We all sat on the dune ridge to watch.
the WCMC crew - Robert, Kamila, and Kersten
 The Jeep is able to pull the SUV out of the dune and Hadirh gets it out of the pit. We all load up and head back to his farm where his family joins us with a feast of all feasts. Hadirh started a fire with palm wood. We had tea and Arabic coffee with his wife and four daughters (his three sons were off doing other things) and told stories about our families. Hadirh is a from a Bedoiun tribe and his family is the first to be settled in one place. He told us about moving with the seasons between the desert and the islands as a kid. After tea, we went up on a raised covered platform with rugs and cushions and began to eat. We had goat from the farm (so juicy, perfectly seasoned, and it fell right off of the bone), a huge platter of fruit, and so many different side dishes. I was so consumed with the experience that I didn't take any photos. We all were stuffed and there was so much food left over. Hadirh was prepared to feed all 13 of us and only 5 of us made it! He and his family were so welcoming and sweet, and his daughters were excited to speak English with us. We cleaned up after dinner and sat back down by the fire. Thursday also happened to be the Islamic equivalent of Christmas - it was the prophet Mohammad's birthday.
 Originally, we planned to head back to the hotel in Al Mirfa, but we ended up staying at Hadirh's house in town. I was able to get my first photo of a mosque at night. They're lit up with green, which is the color of Islam.
 When we got to the family's house, a fire was waiting for us and we sat for a little bit longer in the front. Hadirh told us that the houses in the surrounding few blocks were owned by his family members.
We all passed out and had a delicious breakfast before taking off back to the hotel. We thanked Hadirh and his family profusely - what a great day. Once we got back, we learned that the other crew made the best of their situation and got a tour package from the Tilal Liwa hotel. They also saw camels, got to drive four-wheelers around the dunes and get stuck (to a lesser degree) and barbecue in the dunes. We packed up in Al Mirfa and headed to Ghantoot, an hour north of Abu Dhabi. None of us wanted to be there because we ultimately couldn't get permission to sample at the mangrove sites on a sheik's island nearby, and all of the other sites that we could sample were back in Abu Dhabi, and even back past Al Mirfa. We all put our big boy and girl pants on and continued to do our work, with an added two hours of travel a day (by taxi, since we couldn't get rental cars because of the holiday weekend). One thing that made the car trips less boring was that I learned numbers in Arabic and had fun figuring out what road signs said. Last night, I felt like a proud 3 year old when I could point out the different coin denominations :).

On Friday, I worked in my last mangrove site - an old growth site just east of Abu Dhabi. The mangrove was nice and easy to sample in. What made the trip fun was the hour long boat trip. We passed by the huge Ferrari sports complex (Formula One racing) and amusement park (the roller coaster reaches 240km/hr!). This county is beyond explanation...
 We also motored through the city, which was an interesting change of scenery. Another side note - picture and videos of the Sheiks are everywhere here.
 On one side of the channel, we saw really nice houses.
On the other side, we saw the worker housing. It's estimated that 18% of the population of UAE is Emiratee. The majority of people come from Asia to work in (the never-ending) construction projects and in tourism.

 Once at the mangrove, we had a short time frame to sample between the tides and the sunset. This was the first site that I came across mangrove bees.
 On the boat ride home, the sun set and the full moon rose.
Yesterday, I had my one and only sabkha and algal flat field day. We drove to Al Aryam (means white), which is yet another island owned by a Sheik. The algal flats were kinda interesting and very salty - we maxed out my refractometer a few times (well over 160 ppt!). We also got cores down to two meters.
Pat and Dr. Das getting the corer down to 2 meters.
There's not much going on here (as far as organic carbon is concerned) other than the top 5 cm).
 We then moved to the tidal sabkha. The cores were much shorter (30cm), and, again, not much interesting carbon activity and not a plant to be seen.
Jimmy surveying off into the mirage
 We took a break for lunch. The cook staff on the island prepared us a feast and we ate it in the middle of the road.
 We wrapped up the day by sampling in the upper sabkha. By this point of the day, which happened to be the hottest day so far (maybe 80??), my mind was wandering and I kept thinking that the soil core looked like crumbled pieces of coffee cake.....
 While we waited for Jimmy to finish surveying our plots from another day, I came across another cool succulent plant species along the elevated road, Halocnemum strobilaceum.
 We thought that we might sample some more, but the tide kicked us out.
Me, sporting my colors, with a lovely algal flat in the background
I now have until early Friday morning in Abu Dhabi to wrap up lab work, do a bit of exploring, and perhaps getting some shopping in at the souks (can you believe that I haven't seen a single post card yet?!?!).