BY DIANE CHIANG
In a split second, the car lurches forward and we drop three stories. I yell over Rihanna pumping on the radio. In the last moment, before the vehicle slammed hood first into the sand, the driver sharply turns to cut short our fall into a series of abrupt dips. The RV skims the surface of the sloping sand and slows to a stop. When I let go of the car door handle, our driver chuckles, “This is a new language – your ‘woahs’ and ‘aahs!’” I raise my eyebrow. Yea, Bassam’s a bit of a joker.
Around the world, landscapes shape the people that inhabit them. For Seattleites, the evergreens pique their adventurous spirit, Los Angelenos live a life shaped by coastal surf spots, and for Qataris, it’s the jaw-dropping sand dunes that surround Doha. The desert provides an escape and outlet for adventure. The city hosts an annual 12-hour international 350-km desert rally attracting drivers around the world. Bassam’s tour gave us a taste of that–and of how those dunes live inside every Qatari.
Bassam tells us proudly the last drop was 35 degrees, and then proceeds to hum along with the radio. For the last 16 years, he traveled across this desert, and he knows every drop, waypoint, and shrub.
“I love the desert,” he gestures with his chin, “I come here even when I don’t have a job to get out of the city.”
Bassam tells us about animals that live in the desert – camels, small lizards, desert mice, and foxes. Occasionally, he explains, desert camps release camels out to wander. Suddenly he points into the distance. “See that camel?” We crane our necks. The car drops and we yelp.
He pumps his fist triumphantly into the air. We groan. “Oh, that was a small one. Come on!” Duped by the driver, yet again.
In addition to driving guests for Gulf Adventures, Bassam’s responsibilities include running the business, managing day-to-day operations, booking tours with Qatar Airways customers, and supervising employees in the office and at the seaside camp. He speaks English and Arabic fluently and is learning Spanish, French, and Tagalog. When asked what ethnicity he is, he says matter-of-factly, Palestinian – even though he’s lived in Qatar for his entire life.
I ask him how he knows where he is going, and Bassam cites his experience. I pushed him for specifics. He tells me he relies on tire tracks, other 4x4s in the area, camps, waypoints, and even the sun. If need be, cell towers in the desert provide a signal for lost drivers.
The desert is a good teacher. Bassam surveys and reads the landscape, and knows which areas RVs get stuck. As we drove around a deep valley, he points to the five RVs below. “See that dark patch of sand? There’s [fresh] water five meters down. But them? They’ll be stuck if they don’t get out soon. One time I got stuck, I had to dig my vehicle out.”
Finding a good stopping point atop a dune, Bassam let us out to admire the desert while he took a smoke break. The rolling sand dunes extend without an end in sight, and the sharp contours seem as if cut by a knife. With his back facing us, Bassam takes a long drag of his cigarette. His cinematic silhouette, sunglasses, and cigarette against the sand magnify the mysticism of the desert.
At our last stop, we arrive at Khawr al Udayd, the inland sea separating Qatar from Saudia Arabia. Bassam points out all the military posts – tiny specs of white against the sand and water – and brings out his handy regional map of the Middle East. More than 80% of the region is covered by a desert, he explains, and the people of the region are separated by this geography.
On the way back, I take more pictures of the sand dunes and jagged cliffs, and I see why the incomprehensible vastness of the desert invites the imagination to roam. The majestic desert shapes a way of life, but to the Qataris, it is a common sight like trees or mountains. The desert may be a nuisance for some, with its ever-expanding appetite threatening to engulf cities. For others, its sheer size and scale make you wonder if it ends.
在世界範圍內，景觀塑造了棲息於其間的居民。對於西雅圖人來說，常青樹激發了他們的冒險精神，洛杉磯人過著一種受沿海沖浪地影響的生活，而對於卡塔爾人來說，是圍繞著多哈的那些叫人目瞪口呆的沙丘。沙漠為冒險提供了逃避與出口。這座城市每年舉辦長達12小時的國際沙漠拉力賽，賽程 350 公裏，吸引了全世界的賽車手們。與 Bassam 同行的這一程讓我們嘗到了一點拉力賽的滋味，也了解了這些沙丘在每個卡塔爾人的心裏是怎樣的存在。
除了為參加海灣探險活動的遊客做司機之外，Bassam 的責任還包經營生意，管理日常運營，與卡塔爾航空旅客訂行程，以及監管辦公室和海邊營地的員工。他可以流利地使用英語和阿拉伯語，還在學習西班牙語、法語和塔加洛語。當問起他的種族時，Bassam 說自己實際上是巴勒斯坦人——雖然他一直在卡塔爾生活。
我問 Bassam 怎麽認路，他說靠經驗。我又追問細節。他說自己依靠輪胎痕跡，這片地區的其他4X4越野車，營地，停車點，甚至是太陽。如果需要的話，信號塔也為迷路的司機提供信號。
Bassam 在沙丘頂上找到了一處好地方停車，讓我們下車欣賞沙漠，他自己則去吸煙休息。視野裏翻滾的沙丘向遠處無限地延伸，鋒利的輪廓好像刀子切割出來的。Bassam 背對著我們，長長地吸了一口煙。在沙的對比下，他電影般的剪影，墨鏡和香煙，更加強了沙漠的神秘。
在最後一站，我們來到了 Khawr al Udayd，一片把卡塔爾與沙特阿拉伯分開的內海。Bassam 指出了所有的軍事點——在沙漠和海水中白色的小圓點——然後拿出了便攜的中東地圖。這裏超過80%的區域被沙漠覆蓋，他解釋說，這裏的人則被這樣的地理環境分開。
Diane Chiang is a Taiwanese-American writer who grew up feasting on cheap Chinese food in the 626 suburbs of LA. Based in Seattle, LA, and Taipei, she’s constantly hunting down food and travel stories for her site, The Gastrotourist.
Diane Chiang 是一位台湾裔美国作家，成长在洛杉矶城外，区号626的郊区，吃便宜的中餐长大。现在居住于西雅图、洛杉矶和台北，她长期为自己的网站The Gastrotourist猎取食物与旅行故事。