“Miss, you know there are mountains down there in the desert,” Ali said to me one morning when I finished reading his class a story of how St. Bernards saved people in the Swiss Alps.
“Those are sand dunes,” I explained to him. Most of my Qatari students had traveled widely and knew the difference in a Swiss Alp and a sand dune. Apparently, Ali was one of the few who had never left the Middle East.
“Oh, no, Miss. Those are mountains. I’ve seen them.”
Well, so had I. The other students waited patiently, albeit rolling their eyes, while I continued to try to explain the difference in a sand dune and a real mountain, but Ali wasn’t buying.
“The mountains are where we go dune bashing, Miss. My driver takes us down there on weekends and we find the biggest ones, and we go . . . . ” He proceeded to illustrate with his hand the roller-coaster motions his SUV performed on the dunes.
Ali wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. In fact, dune bashing was one of the first new things I tried when I moved to Qatar after accepting a teaching job at Qatar Foundation. Afraid of heights, it didn’t sound like a lot of fun, but I was assured I hadn’t lived until I’d tried it. The area in the southern part of the small emirate borders Saudi Arabia, and it is there in the south that the dunes rise up to form small hills that lend themselves to roller-coaster like rides. On almost any weekend you can find numerous SUVs filled with Qatari teenagers driven there by their drivers, as well as tourists and newcomers to the country, all with the same goal: roller-coastering up and down the dunes.
My two friends and I chose a pleasant day in October for our adventure. Before the wild ride began, our hired driver stopped at a gas station to reduce the air in their tires. Full tires lend themselves to accidents. I was fully aware that there are accidents even with lowered air pressure. The occasional broken back. Broken necks. Bashed skulls. Fractured arms and legs. Several times each season, an SUV rolls injuring the occupants.
Air pressure lowered and courage steeled, we approached the top of a dune, the vehicle fishtailing in the sand as we ascended. At the top, our driver stopped for us to view the desert panorama – miles and miles of sand, gently rising and falling. Saudi Arabia in the distance. Then, without warning, he shot over the edge of the dune, laughing devilishly at our screams. Convinced that the contents of my stomach would erupt at any moment, I squeezed my stomach with both hands as though I could control my insides. Up and down, we went. Endlessly. I closed my eyes and prayed to whatever deity was listening. Just let me come through this unharmed . . . I pleaded, . . . and I will be forever good.
Eventually it was over, and I lived to tell. I don’t know which is worse: a roller coaster or dune bashing. At least in the dunes, one has the advantage of interesting scenery.
I gave up my effort to enlighten Ali about the relative sizes of dunes and Alps. I believe it was the same Ali (there are lots of Alis in Qatar) who asked me a few weeks later if Canada was as big as Qatar. When I explained that Canada was the second biggest country in the world, while Qatar was the size of one of the smallest states in the U.S., he didn’t believe me any more than he did when I told him the dunes weren’t mountains.