Dubai’s Camel Racing Festival ended yesterday. I was determined to see it before the last day so I took my kids earlier this week. We were humming along on a 30 minute drive and then I passed the turn-in to the racetrack. As those living in Dubai know, missing an entrance like that can spell disaster because it often takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r to find a place to turn around and make it back to where you needed to be. I immediately turned off on a side street, sadly looking at the little blinking dot on my GPS that showed we were just a hair beyond the track. Then I spotted some men leading camels toward the races, and a car full of Emiratis slowly inching in that direction. Then they stopped and conveniently one of them had the window rolled down. Is it inappropriate for me to ask a car full of Emirati men directions? Surely my three kids in the back would excuse me from any impropriety, so I asked them. They were quite young (maybe teenagers) and didn’t speak English very well but were clearly very curious about this westerner on a small road in their town gesturing strangely in a way that was supposed to look like running camel hooves. We finally communicated enough to understand each other and they led the way as I followed. I was a bit nervous because we weren’t on a real road. My boys thought it was fabulous we were driving through some sandy bits, and I just kept reminding myself that I knew how to get back to the main road. Then I saw the flags and knew we had arrived. Our guides waved goodbye and we waved back, thankful they were nice enough to show us the way.
We parked the car and made our way to the stands. I looked around at the all male crowd. The baby, my two sons in school uniforms and I stood out – just a tad. This wasn’t the first time I’ve been the only woman among a bunch of men in Dubai, but this time people were giving us strange looks. A security guard walked over and I asked if there was a women’s section. He said I was sitting in the area for the camel trainers. Ha! So I walked to the other side that was far less crowded. A handful of westerners and a few people who worked at the track watched the TV intently. I glanced at the middle section of the stands, obviously reserved for Emiratis. Some of the seats were covered in red velvet – the VIP section I suppose. Segregation like this that is so common in Dubai will never feel normal to me.
Races started every 10 minutes or so and from this vantage point we could see the end of the race. As I mentioned in my other post about camel races, thankfully, they no longer use children jockeys but instead use little robots mounted on the camels’ backs. The owners race around the sides of the tracks in their SUVs becoming a spectacle and stealing the spotlight from the camels. Here are a few pics (not the greatest because I was watching the boys with one eye while shooting with the other and trying not to bonk the head of my baby who I was wearing in the baby bjorn :)).
We then wandered over to the start of the races. It was definitely a more intimate experience as we could stand right where the camels came out of the gate. The atmosphere was also more festive as people drank coffee poured from shiny Arabic coffee pots and TV crews filmed the action. A man dressed like a butler in a bow-tie offered us drinks and gave the boys vanilla* and chocolate flavored camel milk. Everyone was very hospitable and friendly, especially with the children. As we left, they handed us a generously sized box of delicious Arabic sweets. I think there was a sense of pride among the locals there that we came to appreciate this part of their cultural heritage. We very much appreciated their welcoming spirit – it was a memorable experience.
I think the passenger in the picture below is the son of Sheikh Mohammed (Ruler of Dubai and Prime Minster and Vice President of the UAE). Certainly, his licence plate indicates he has some serious cash since plates like that sell for millions of dollars. (not the car, simply the licence plate!)
* When I came home, I tried this “vanilla” camel’s milk. I don’t have the most discerning palate in the world, but wow, it tasted really weird. Not sweet at all and I wondered what plain camel’s milk tasted like for the vanilla version to taste so bitter. As I looked at the bottle more closely, I discovered it was saffron flavor – not vanilla!