Dreams, Drama, and Dolphins by Amy Bovaird
In 1997, I moved to the United Arab Emirates (the UAE). Living in the Middle East fit in with my plan of seeing more of the world—while I could. For the past decade, I had struggled with a progressive eye condition stealing my vision a little at a time. Though I was hush-hush about my sight loss back then, my “mission” was to live out my travel dreams in as many ways as possible.
I arrived on a wave of international English teachers brought in to educate the locals. This small country had only been a nation for twenty-six years and its citizens were coming to the forefront of change. The president, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, looked to technology to accomplish this.
I lived in Ras Al Khaimah (better known as RAK), the northernmost of the seven emirates. The culture revolved around camels, goats and sheep, thousands of date palm varieties, traditional shipbuilding and, at one time, pearl diving. RAK had everything I wanted—the mountains, the desert and the sea.
In contrast to the rural setting, my job focused on teaching Business English to Emirati women. The Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), seen as a cutting-edge higher-level institution with branches in each emirate, gave me a front row seat to change. For RAK, sending women into the workplace broke new ground, though it focused on schools or hospitals. One cultural line would never be crossed: HCT was divided into two separate campuses, one for the men and one for the women.
I loved teaching and living in the UAE not only because I could witness change first-hand but also because it threw me into a smorgasbord of international cultures. It gave me the best of all worlds.
I lucked out with Ed, our laid-back Canadian director of both campuses in RAK. He provided ample opportunity to immerse ourselves in culture around the Arabian Gulf.
One Thursday morning—the first day of the weekend in the Middle East—Ed drew our joint faculty meeting to a close. He ran a hand through his sparse white hair and loosened the collar of his short-sleeved polo shirt, sending out the message that, like us, he’d had enough of being cooped up.
At nearly seven foot and lanky, Ed looked unassuming but had no trouble leading because we saw him as “one of us.” A man of few words, he held our monthly staff meetings to a minimum—strictly administrative details. Today, his blue eyes gleamed as he touted yet another cultural activity for us, an excursion on a dhow—a traditional handcrafted wooden boat typical of the Arabian Gulf.
“Now don’t everyone sign up at once. Let the new staff go if you’ve been there before.” Ed smiled. “Take advantage of the opportunity to explore the region. Several of you have four-wheel drives. If you don’t, find someone who does and pool a ride with them.”
Used to problem-solving for rides since I could no longer see well enough to drive, I recalled the librarian and her husband owned a 4x4. They might agree to take me.
Ed continued, “We’re headed to Dibba, where we’ll rent the dhow for the day. Be sure to take your swimming suits as we’ll drop anchor. You can swim, snorkel or even scuba dive at the site. If you’re lucky,” his face crinkled into a lopsided smile, you’ll be able view a dolphin or two before we’re through.”
I caught my breath. Dolphins! Oh, I wanted to go.
As the meeting broke up, I found the librarian.
“Dibba is our Omani neighbor,” Janna explained, “and is only a few hours from RAK.”
“That’s great,” I enthused, “I hope I can catch a ride.”
My name made the list and so did Janna and her husband, John, so I was in.
The next morning, I strained to see the headlights of the promised vehicle. A quick toot-toot let me know my friends had arrived.
At the roundabout, we met more drivers. Pre-dawn darkness shrouded the landscape as our 3-vehicle caravan headed toward Dibba.
While we jounced along, I reveled in the chance to glimpse Oman and Musandam Peninsula. I knew little more than Iran was to the north and the Gulf of Oman, to the south. We were headed to the Strait of Hormuz.
Janna turned to me. “Did you know, the Strait of Hormuz is a strategically important sea passage on the Persian Gulf? It’s the only channel to the sea. Navy vessels from several different countries travel through. If you pay attention, you may see one.”
“Wow, no, I didn’t know that.” Riding with a librarian had its benefits.
“Navy vessels, blah! I’d much rather spot a frolicking dolphin in the waves,” John interjected. He pulled the vehicle to a stop. “This is us.” He exited to consult with the other drivers while the rest of us stayed put. Outside the window, I saw a large commercial dock and a few more faculty members.
Momentarily, John returned and we all headed for the wharf.
A few men carried ice chests filled with food and beverages. Ed and his wife, Elizabeth, brought on their scuba gear. I carried only my backpack with my beach towel, sandals and a book. I hadn’t decided if I would swim or not.
Ed motioned us forward. Our entourage fanned out as we stepped onto the flat wooden planks that made up the crude bed of our dhow. To one side was an airy cabin framework and the other side came to a point that tipped up. The cabin was brightly-painted, for tourists I supposed. The damp wood attested to the dhow’s seaworthiness. These beams would never be in port long enough to dry out.
As we prepared for our journey, I took a seat on the starboard side. The water gently lapped at the ship. How heavenly the sun feels on my bare arms. I will never tire of tropical climates. Leaning my head against the side of the boat, I closed my eyes.
Janna gave my shoulder a small shake. “Amy, you’re missing some spectacular scenery.”
I fought to open my eyes. Even under the protection of prescription sunglasses, the sun seemed to burn a hole through the lenses and force them shut. They were so sensitive to light. Once my pupils adjusted, I could see again. A small price to pay for a day of adventure.
I watched the huge rock mountains as they paraded into view on both sides of the dhow. The mountain range with its sharp angular lines appeared as if drawn with bold strokes of a child’s marker. The caves inside resembled heavily penciled dots.
We stopped near Lima Rock, where divers and snorkelers prepared their gear. It looked deep. “Watch out for the current,” warned a Kiwi diver. He pointed to surprisingly rough waters at a distance. “Stay on this side of the boat.”
A snorkeler gave him the thumbs up and replied, “Right, matey,” which prompted me to guess at his nationality as I watched several more faculty members enter the water. Was he an Aussie, Kiwi or Brit?
It hadn’t taken me long to pick up the expat lingo delineating our international colleagues. Kiwi – from New Zealand. Aussie – Australian. Scot and Brit seemed easy enough nationalities to match. Tougher were sorting out the myriad of Arab and Eastern countries on the staff.
While we sunbathed, I brought up the topic with a few faculty members I recognized from the Men’s college. “There’s Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian … and the nationalities break down to staff members within various countries. South India is different from North India … It’s so fascinating.”
The time passed pleasantly. Topics changed and I became better acquainted with my colleagues. The dhow rocked pleasantly and I couldn’t stop smiling. Here I was hanging out in a native-made boat chitchatting with people hailing from half a world away.
I felt as if were filled with champagne and it bubbled out of me in effortless laughter. I wanted to hold onto this feeling forever. Every country I lived and taught in had a unique national culture and beauty that enhanced my life. But never had I taken a job where so many different nationalities converged. We even had a name: expatriate. Expat. And I was one of them. We talked about different foods, travel, politics, and local Emirati values.
The Maths teacher said, “You’ll have to go to Liwa, a real desert gem near Abu Dhabi,” She yawned. “Guess it’s about time for a dip.” She stood up and motioned to her Economics sidekick, then turned to me, “Ya’ comin’ in, Aims?”
‘Aims.’ I liked that. It fit me. I was aiming for my best life.
I glanced at the water and considered. The sun made me lethargic. “Nah, I don’t think so. Not right now.”
After they left, my mind wandered. So many new terms, even among the western staff—small differences, such as how they referred to Math, as Maths, the European way. I never tired of discovering these subtle language differences.
I started to read a few pages of my book before turning it over and napping.
“Someone is tugging on our emergency line!” The tense voice woke me from my slumber.
I sat up, and like others, turned my attention to the water. In a short period of time, the sky had turned dark and the wind had kicked up a notch. Of course, no surprise to me, I didn’t see much on the water. Tiny blobs. For all I knew, they could be seals. I looked on as the New Zealander and a few of the other men jumped to action.
“Two females,” another confirmed. He moved with lightning speed toward the rope. “We’ll pull ’em up here.” His voice infused calm. The rescue took only minutes and the women were pulled aboard.
“Than–Thank you for the leg up,” the first one said, ashen. “That current is wicked.”
The second woman coughed up seawater. Her eyes darted from person to person without recognition. ”Um, who … are you?”
After a few startled looks back and forth, someone laughed and the Kiwi, who had become our spokesperson while Ed was out scuba diving, grinned. “You’re safe, matey, but you’re on the wrong dhow, are ya’?”
The two women blinked, sputtered and coughed as it became apparent that is exactly what had happened. As red as their faces were from embarrassment, the women did not test the water again.
With the rescue behind us, the mood turned lighter. When the sun came out, I must have closed my eyes and drifted off again. I woke up and contemplated fishing a bottle of water out of the cooler when the Kiwi cried out, “There’s someone else out there on the rocks and they’re tugging on the line!”
One of the divers said, “It’s Ed and his wife.”
Fear darted through me. Oh no! Not Ed and Elizabeth.
The current must have carried them past the boat. It was likely even stronger in deeper water.
An anxious murmur ran through the group. Cocky members grew silent. Talk became terse. Several staff hung over the side trying to catch a glimpse of where the couple could be stranded.
Janna had said the Strait led to the open sea. My stomach clenched. It’ll be okay. Of course, I expected the rescue to go as quickly as the first one had gone, but it didn’t.
Squinting, I tried again to locate them but the wind whipped the water around in high waves, and I couldn’t see either one. The sky darkened even more and sudden huge drops of rain pelted our dhow. Those in the water clambered aboard, and offered their help in the crisis.
We’ll bring ‘em in. We have to.
“The line is broken!” someone shouted.
With a flurry of movement, the crew tied on a thicker rope to the dhow.
I heard cursing. But still no rescue. Hushed voices spoke. Tense words passed between the men and women on board. Precious minutes ticked away.
“They’re drifting away from the rocks and into the sea!”
“What are we waiting for?” shouted the Business instructor.
“It’s been about thirty minutes since the first tug on the distress line. What the …? We need to catch up to ‘em.”
The two dhow drivers kicked the motor into high gear. They shouted back and forth in Arabic. Had they spotted Ed and Elizabeth?
The boat circled out in wide arcs and drew close enough that a diver could throw out the thicker rope. He then jumped into the churning water and swam toward them. We all waited with bated breath.
The staff crowded by the side of the ship preventing me from seeing what was going on. With my vision loss and my own tendency to tumble into danger, this rescue business is something I should probably know more about. If I had gone out on the water, it could well be me. No time to ponder. The charged atmosphere and shouts turned triumphant. They were rescued!
Elizabeth came first. Then Ed. Everyone on board burst into cheers.
Ed smiled, gave a half-wave and muttered, “Helluva current out there.”
Someone wrapped a towel around Elizabeth and handed one to Ed. An exchange of tales flew between the two parties as they hashed out the harrowing event. Ed said, “We wondered for a while if you saw us.”
“We’d a pulled ya’ in sooner but the damn line broke--”
Elizabeth interrupted, “Thank God, it did! As we drifted farther out, that rope wrapped around my wrist. It kept getting tighter and tighter, like a vise. It hurt like hell. The rope was cutting off my circulation. I thought I might lose my hand.”
The crowd leaned in to examine her wrist, blocking off my view of it. Would she need a doctor’s care?
“I’d have rather gone out to sea than go through that agony.” She shuddered.
“Glad that didn’t happen.” Ed slid an arm around Elizabeth’s waist. His eyes, which seemed a paler blue, still held gentle humor.
When we didn’t turn around, I figured the injury didn’t require immediate medical attention. Then I heard Elizabeth laugh. What a seasoned traveler she was! Any woman who could handle being washed out to sea, survive almost losing a hand, and laugh afterwards was a trooper.
Someone handed them cans of beer.
Ed took a long draught. “I need this about now.” He still wore his wet suit and flippers but looked more relaxed seated on the rough planks toward the center of the dhow. He suddenly noticed the two strangers on board.
“We’re the first rescue,” one woman volunteered. “We got back on the wrong dhow.”
Ed chuckled. “Don’t blame ya’ there.” He shook his head and motioned to the cooler. “Have a cold one on the HCT. You deserve it.”
Now that everyone was safe, we all turned to the great comforter in any crisis—food.
Raindrops still bombarded us but with everyone on board, the sound felt oddly comforting. I finished eating, and downed another bottle of water. With my legs warmed by my towel, I observed my colleagues. So many new faces, my mates now. They carried on with jokes and jibes as if nothing had happened. How different it could have been. A peril on the sea. Relief flooded through me that it ended well.
“Ya’ look like you’re havin’ a good time,” Ed said with a smile as he brushed by me.
I grinned back, thrilled that after all my director had gone through, he still noticed how others around him felt. That’s how Ed was.
In late afternoon, with the ship gently bobbing in the placid water once again, someone called out, “Looky there, matey, after two rescues on this long crazy day, what do ya’ know, the sun’s shining and we got our dolphins.”
Everyone grabbed their cell phones to photograph them. It was the perfect cap to the drama we had experienced earlier.
While my sight loss keeps me from seeing the world perfectly, that day I saw my fill of drama. The blurry dreams I had when I set out to teach in the Emirates were becoming clearer. That indomitable spirit of love of life, travel and language connected me to my expatriate colleagues not only in concrete ways but also in intangible ways that are best felt by the heart.
Over the years, that dhow became a symbol of strength. When I feel as if the current is too strong to handle the waves of my sight loss and the undertow threatens my safety, I remember the handcrafted dhow of the Arabian Gulf and how its seaworthiness proved a refuge.
The vessel never stayed tied to its dock. The sea beckoned and it answered. Can I be as strong as the ship, uniquely-designed by my Master? I strive to welcome others, reminding them while the waters may be rough, some of life’s best moments can be found on the waves.