As we drive up the eastern coast of Fujairah along the Indian Ocean, we cruise through one small village after another. I watch the shanty strip malls fan out and back like the wake of a speed boat over the flat, glassy surface of a northern Indiana lake. Construction rubble, stray dogs, and huddles of immigrant workers, all men, wrapped in sarongs and kurtas, brown from sandy soot, bookend each of the clusters of commerce. There is promise of development, though it is languid, lethargic, and doubtful.
The desert dunes on one side and rugged mountains on the other fill the pauses between villages. Everything is dry. Tufts of scrawny green dot the desert waves. A herd of goats stand on broken mountain rock. Random clusters of date palms shelter broken stone walls and make-shift housing that appear to be void of human life. Dips between mountains reveal sprawling neighborhoods behind white or beige walls in the valleys.
Seldom do I see camels along this road; I’m told they are deeper in the desert. As we pass the port, we go through a tunnel of huge oil drums; a horrid stench seeps from them and creeps into the car and for a moment. I want to gag.
A parking lot for fishing boats, a warehouse that sells fish, another that sells vegetables, then more shanty strip malls. We turn inland as we near my school. I see more shops, most of them empty. I see more mountains, most of them bare. I see more rubble and wonder if it’s construction or demolition. I see more stray dogs and herds of goats. Once we saw several donkeys.
Zaheer is my Pakistani driver. He is confident in both his driving and his English. I am only confident in his driving. He has a tenor voice and his sounds are thick, as if the back of his tongue is toggled tightly on both sides to the pinch in his jaw, back behind his molars. (Though I do not think he has any molars). Surly the tip of his tongue is curled upward by the pull at the back, resting on the soft pallet that domes the inside of his mouth.
He is my informant, explaining the things we see. I learn that the shepherds are Bangladeshi, the owners of the goats are Emirates; camels are revered, donkeys are worthless; the mountains are beautiful, the ocean is nice, and the fishermen only work when the sun is down. The oil goes to Oman and “everywhere else”; today the weather is good.
We arrive at my school and I step into the vacuum of heat that swallows me instantly. My friend says it’s the “breath of the devil” and that it “snakes up your legs”. Her description is accurate. I pay my driver and tell him to have a good day. He returns the greeting, his words as thick as the heat. I look to the mountains, nod my gratitude for all that is, and assume my own “mountain pose” inside my heart as I walk alone to the front doors to begin my day.