The 150km arc of villages and farms hugs the edge of Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter (Rub’-al Khali), which truly lives up to its name: only the odd roaming camel or small verdant oasis magnifies just how spectacular this endless landscape of undulating sand dunes, shimmering in shades of gold, apricot and cinnamon, really is.
This description of Liwa from Lonely Planet makes it seem like a must-see destination, doesn’t it? Something about being in the largest sand desert in the world, the Rub’-al-Khali (which translates literally to the Quarter of Emptiness, but generally known as The Empty Quarter), is mysterious and romantic so I’ve had that page ear-marked for a while now. We finally went this weekend.
Our hotel was about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Dubai. As soon as we set out, I heard the DJ on the radio say, “The whole of the UAE is waiting to see if this big sandstorm will materialize…” and then I was too annoyed to continue listening.
Sigh. What sandstorm? I never think to check the weather because it’s usually so predictable. That obsessive minute-by-minute weather reporting that seems to be popular at home just doesn’t exist here. Oh well, almost all of our excursions are marred by some small unfortunate happenstance so what’s a little sandstorm, right?
After passing Abu Dhabi, we drove for miles and miles into the desert, passing at least 30 buses filled with laborers. I always look closely at the men inside. They all wear the same blue or orange jumpsuits making them look like prisoners. The buses transport them from their isolated labor camps to their work site. Usually their heads droop in awkward angles as they grab an undoubtedly well-deserved nap. A few look back at me or stare blankly out the window. I have often wanted to take their picture but never do because I would feel ashamed if they found it demeaning, but really I just want them to know they are not invisible. In addition to these buses, we shared the road with countless trucks transporting construction materials. It’s early April and already 95F (35C). The wind preceding the sandstorm was stirring up the sand and dust. It felt like the epitome of “the middle of nowhere” and yet there was the road, street lights, electrical lines and miles and miles of palm trees and bushes lining this artery through the desert: fruits of these workers’ labor. The color of the landscape was bizarre because of the wind, sand and reflected sunlight, almost a chalky white, like something you’d see in a futuristic sci-fi thriller. We came to see beautiful “apricot and cinnamon” colored dunes; instead, we got a glimpse into the workers’ hell.* The “quarter of emptiness” is an apt name.
Later we arrived at our hotel, The Tilal Liwa Hotel.
I didn’t realize at the time of booking that it’s actually about 45 minutes or so from Liwa so it wasn’t surrounded by the large sand dunes I had envisioned. Nonetheless, the vastness of the desert was still captivating.
I started to wonder where all the people who work at the hotel live. My husband and I suspected that they lived somewhere on the premises. I asked a Filipina employee where she lived and she confirmed that there was housing for the hotel workers just around the corner.
It’s difficult to go about vacationing lightheartedly when you know people have suffered a great deal to build the hotel you are staying in, or are living far away from their families on the edge of a massive desert so they can make you and countless other tourists an omelette. The boys, in their innocent naïvety had fun though and finally rode a camel. They did it on our second day when the wind’s restlessness made the sand a real nuisance so no one else was around. We had to protect their eyes with sunglasses as the sand muddled everyone’s vision. They looked so vulnerable way up there on the big camel, walking off into the dusty desert.
But they saw it as a big adventure and we got some great shots of them.
As I mentioned, the wind was picking up, so going to see Tal Mireb, one of the largest sand dunes in the world, was out of the question because it was 45 minutes away. We got on our palm tree-lined highway and headed back to Dubai. The road had two lanes going in one direction, a median demarcated by metal guard rails, and 2 lanes headed in the other direction. It felt dangerous since lots of 18 wheelers occupied the slow right lane while crazy drivers flew past in the fast lane. We generally stayed in the slow lane, but as we drove for a bit in the left lane, passing slower trucks, a car came completely out of nowhere and whipped past us going probably over 100 miles per hour. It somehow squeezed by on the left, between our car and the metal guard rail! It was completely crazy, there is nowhere near a full lane of space there. It was one of those moments when your heart stops. I gasped and looked back at my three kids in the backseat, so infuriated at this idiotic driver! Unfortunately, there are so many of them here.
We luckily made it back to Dubai just in time because the sandstorm was really picking up speed, painting the sky an eerie, soupy shade of yellow. Skyscrapers lurked in the distance, this urban landscape now a shadowy, indistinct alter ego of its normally glittering self. That night we climbed into bed, relishing the sound of the wind that reminded us of thunderstorms in Houston. And then voilà! The sandstorm morphed into a huge thunderstorm! We closed our eyes, so happy to be home safely and listening to the rain, lulled to sleep by memories of Texas.
*For readers unfamiliar with laborers’ conditions in this part of the world, it is reported that they often come here because recruiters promise they will make good money, after they pay off the initial “recruitment fee” that is. They then find themselves starting their new job engulfed in debt, working long hours, getting paid minuscule salaries (when they are indeed paid, sometimes wages are withheld for months at a time), having their passports taken away by their employer, and living in crowded, unsanitary conditions. For ways to help the laborers check out AdoptaCamp, Helping Hands UAE, or Care for Laborers.