Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas Day in the desert

"Ho, ho, Merry Christmas!"

People gasped in several languages as a spotlight lit up the top of a sand dune behind the huts that covered the barbecue grills and the full-service bar. There sat Santa Claus, on a camel, waving to the crowd as he worked his way down into the campsite, past the shisha tent and the gift shop, calling for all the children to meet him at the stage for "free Santa gifts" before the belly dancing show started.

It doesn't get much goofier than this.

Christmas Day in the desert seemed to call for something a little different, so that's what we did. It started with a spot of "dune-bashing" -- a ride in a four-wheel drive going up, down and around every hill in the desert -- and ended with a cookout that managed to mangle two cultures beyond the point of recognition.

The dune-bashing was fun, and about what we expected. Our driver, Abdullah, picked us up and headed out of the city, found some sand dunes and took off. Abdullah didn't talk much, but he seemed to know his way around the dunes. He gave us a few thrills, and stopped several times for photo ops while he stepped off to the side and grumbled into his cell phone.

It got a little old after about an hour, and I think we were all a little queasy, so everyone was glad when we took a break to visit to a camel ranch. It was pretty cool. I never realized how cute camels are, especially the young ones. The smell, however, is awful.

Then it was back in the truck and off to the campsite, which promised camel rides, "an authentic Arab barbecue" and a chance to "try the hubbly bubbly" (shisha).

The camp was larger than we expected, big enough for a couple of hundred people, and I couldn't vouch for how authentic it was -- the full bar certainly didn't fit in, nor the gift shop that sold dishdashes and abayas for only a few dirhams. You could get your photo taken dressed up in native costume or with a forlorn looking pet falcon. The three-minute camel rides were kind of silly, but hey, at least we could say we'd been on a camel.

It all seemed to be a typical, cheesy, touristy desert experience, maybe not all that authentic, but still fun in a harmless sort of way. Then the music switched from Arabic to Jingle Bells, and Santa magically appeared on his camel. We definitely were not expecting this.

He came down from the dune and into the campground, swaying on his camel, a skinny local guy with a fake beard and a couple of pillows stuffed into his Santa suit. About all he ever said was "Ho, ho, Merry Christmas!" and "Queue up, children, queue up!"

I guess no one told him there are three ho's in "Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!" Even some Japanese in the crowd shouted "Ho, ho, HO!" back at him, hoping he would get the hint. But when he hopped from his camel with a bag of cheap toys, he was surrounded by kids (and adults) who didn't seem to mind. After a mad scramble, they scampered back to their seats, happy, and finally the show moved on.

(An aside: This was the only place we heard "religious" Christmas songs. There were carolers in the malls, but they stuck to Rudolph and Jingle Bells and similar tunes.)

The barbecue lines opened and the music switched back to Arabic, and traditional dancers replaced Santa on the big carpet in the middle of the campground. The food was good, and plentiful, with everything from hummus to barbecue chicken, with fresh fruit for dessert.

We finished dinner and watched the dancers and tried the shisha, About 9 o'clock Abdullah was there to drive us back to the city, where we went off to bed with visions of a very different Christmas dancing in our heads.

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