Life is oftentimes best when you don’t have expectations. Enter each new experience with open eyes and an open heart. I tend to prefer surprises especially the adventurous kind…

Award-winning cookbook author, Culinary Diplomat, Culinary Historian, Chef and my dear friend Amy Riolo was invited back to Dubai to participate in a festival. She has participated in past book festivals and was excited to be invited once more. They asked her to demo three recipes from her cookbooks for the Sharjah Children’s and Reading Festival.

For the past three years I have assisted Amy at a variety of culinary events from prepping recipes to promoting her on social media as well as selling her cookbooks. There were many times that we said, “wouldn’t it be great to have a gig abroad to do these events?” Our opportunity arrived. She invited me to join her to Sharjah as her assistant. This will be part 1 of 3 blogs on our adventure.

Sharjah is one of seven emirs governed by Federal Supreme Council of The United Arab Emirates, which is a federation of hereditary absolute monarchies. The other six emirs are Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Qaiwain. Prior to the discovery of oil in this region in the 1950s the UAE’s economy was dependent on fishing and pearl industry. These days tourism plays a huge role in the success of their economy.

On Monday, April 24th, Amy and I arrived to the Hotel Hilton Sharjah that morning from the smoothest flight I have ever taken with Emirates. The first plan on our itinerary was a Dinner in the Desert. We met the others who were going on the same trip outside our hotel and we all climbed into a SUV. I assumed we would take a ride to where a buffet would be waiting in the desert then turn around and go home. Oh no, so much more awaited us…

What began as a sightseeing trip quickly turned into a desert roller coaster on four wheels. Our driver coasted down dunes on the side, sand flying passed our windows like waves turning and twisting through the soft beige sand like a runaway train. We watched as other cars in our caravan appeared to drop off the side of dunes, disappear for a few moments only to twist upright and then dip down again around another dune. I was in 7th Heaven filming segments with my phone. There was a family from the Philippines with their daughter whose 7th birthday was that day. When she was in the middle seat in front of me she would raise her hands if on a roller coaster. The drops were so good I felt my tummy take a few dives as if I were on a real coaster.

One of our sightseeing stops along the way.

Our driver had the coolest air freshener. He puts the scented wood or called ‘oud’ into the fancy lighter and then lit it as one would incense.

Our driver would make stops along with the other cars in our caravan for photo opportunities. I ran out, sandaled feet sinking into the warm soft beige sand, wind whipping around me and sand swirling around my body tickling my legs and arms. Amy and I both were attempting to take beautiful pics as the wind seemed to laugh at us.

Little windy…

Back in the car and off to another scenic spot, I caught sight of my first camel. The animal-loving five-year-old in me felt giddy with excitement at the thought to finally ride one.

The camels were held in large cages while a few walked around freely with one rope tied around their front ankles preventing them from running away. The one closest to us began moaning and walking back toward the huge cages. Rumor had it she was walking back to her baby. I worried that would be our only camel encounter but the night was young.

The camel mamma.

Once back in the cars and off again the drive was long but I loved every second. Watching the wind delicately pick up the sand and swirl it in circles was like watching a desert ballet of sorts.

As we pulled up to our destination, I immediately spotted three camels sitting on the sand equipped with colorful ornate saddles and a man holding their rope leash. One of my travel dreams was about to become a reality.

A little village began to emerge before our eyes after we walked passed the camels. Situated in a huge wide semi-circle were adorable grass huts like what Bedouins built and stopped off along their journey through the desert. Some were filled with low tables and seating cushions lined around each table. Others were filled with pottery, some empty and there was one Henna hut.

I walked over to the camel, greeted its handler and then gracefully as possible hooked one leg over the saddle and hoisted myself on top. Camels have long legs. They stick their butts up first which was a ride in itself holding on as it steadied itself on all four hoofed feet. The handler took me around in a circle snapping pictures with my phone from different angles. Once back on solid ground, I tipped him and thanked him for being a fab photographer.

Between some of the huts people were hiking up the sand dune and then sliding down on a snowboard. I don’t ski or snowboard but that would not stop me from carrying a board that was almost bigger than me up the steep dune. Once at the top a guy from England was getting ready to go down. My feet looked like child’s feet trying fit and walk in mom’s high heels. I felt unstable and wobbly and let gravity take me down the hill. I slid easily at first until more than half way down and the front of my board was stuck in the sand. I couldn’t budge it out of the soft sand. The guy was sliding down and I quickly held my arms out to ask for his help to pull me out as he was sliding. Instead he lost his balance and fell and we both burst into laughter. I was so glad the guy below recorded the bail!

Amy was having her Henna done and I waited with her to snap some pictures. I was next. My first Henna. I had her do the design on my left hand and forefinger so I could use it for pictures to post on social media.

Amy having he henna done on both hands.

The tantalizing smells of cardamom, turmeric and curry began to waft through the air as everyone got in line to fill their plates then we settled on the seating cushions. I enjoyed sitting on the ground since it felt comfortable and cozy. The sun was beginning to descend below the dunes and I was far from ready for this evening to come to an end.

I was hungry.

The evening was indeed far from over with two incredible live shows. The first was a dance by a Whirling Dervish. The Whirling Dervishes originated in 13th century Turkey in the Islamic sect of Sufism. The religious dance is called the tanoura and was performed to express emotion and achieve the wisdom of God. In more recent years the dance has been performed for tourists than for religious purposes. The dancer spins in a circle the entire time while wearing a huge colorful skirt and appears to look like a human spinning top. Arabic music plays to the beat of his spinning. He holds different items while in motion that he alternates.

The second was a fire dancer. Yes, he literally danced with long stick-like rods that are lit with fire on the ends and he spins them around his body as he dances around. I prayed he did not accidentally let go of one! I love fire but from a distance. The dance itself was amazing to see all the different ways he could spin the fiery rods.

As the evening came to a close, the three camels were walking along the top of the dunes being led by their handler. They sauntered across the sand their saddles and bodies striking against the dark night a scene that will remain tattooed in my memory long after the Henna fades from my hand.

Written by Lisa M. Comento