Thursday night. Traditionally, the night everyone lets down their hair in the Middle East, as it’s the end of our working week. This Thursday night, we head to the Irish bar. It is the birthday of one of the Lebanese guys from IT, and this requires all the boys in our group to drink flaming sambucas. What a pyrotechnical revelation for me. I watch in awe as the boys theatrically twirl around the clear, oily liquid in their glasses, abruptly set it on fire with their lighters and then ‘flame throw’ the contents of the glass up to the ceiling. Spectacular. But the real drama follows as they then, with a straw, inhale the smoke from under the glass.
I have been trying to get a printer for my office ever since I arrived. I have filled in countless requisitions, that have all disappeared in the great ‘inshallah’ in the sky. The boys see me eyeing up the slippery sambuca. The dare is proffered. A flaming sambuca for a printer. How can I refuse? I certainly can’t bear to fill out another incomprehensible requisition. There is simply no choice.
I am surprising adept at the flame-throwing bit (and delighted with my whole new talent). I tie my hair back and inhale, deeply. The sting is phenomenal, red-hot poker fumes rebound like a ball bearing in a pinball machine through my sinuses. Before I know it my eyes seemed to have shot out of my head and across the table. I can’t even gasp. But, I have secured my printer!
However, somehow during the course of all this I agree to go quad biking! I don’t drive and all things with wheels terrify me. Flaming sambuca…
The next day I find myself in a car hurtling to the sand dunes. It isn’t until we get close, and the realisation of what I am about to do fully dawns on me, that I start to panic. Truly panic. Up until this moment, I have been too exercised by the number of land cruisers driving at 150mph down the centre of the road, flashing their lights at us to get out of their way.
The desert scene where we arrive is utterly insane, with crazed local men racing around in every which way, kicking up massive clouds of dust. I don’t know what I expected, something tame and contained, like at a theme park. Helmets, safety gear, a little lesson perhaps.
This is wild, lawless. If I am petrified by the locals driving on the roads, then their quad biking antics are beyond any prior terror – I have never been so white-knuckle scared in my life. I am almost sick and can’t stop shaking, but I can’t let my dashing companions see this.
Suddenly, here I am about to get on a huge hulk of roaring machinery, that requires steering and an understanding of speed, not to mention gears. No little lesson. I am just manhandled onto a chunk of metal and pushed off into the rising grit. Then, the real fun starts as everyone else shots off and so do I … in the opposite direction!
The hard desert is extremely rough and bumpy, and I feel every bone being rattled and can barely hold onto the steering handles. It is madness. I don’t drive, am not used to going more than 4 mph on my jogging feet, and now I’m bumping across land at 30mph, with no helmet or safety gear. My bloodied skull floats before me.
Thankfully, we go off deep into the desert to get away from all the craziness and find some quiet, lonely dunes. Here, it is softer and easier to steer, my teeth settle back into my jaw. I even take a breath. The dunes really are beautiful. Soft honey meringues. I press my foot a little harder, sand scattering around me like gold dust. I smile, maybe I can like this. I even manage to skip across a dune, which gets me some brownie points with my companions, who flatter me by saying I am ‘a natural’ and doing really well. A little press of the foot again.
We speed up a really big dune and I round a blind corner to find the boys mucking about, I am worried that I am going to run into them and so take a swerve. I launch, at speed, off the top of a mountainous dune. I sail gloriously through the air, supersonic.
Needless to say, landing is less glorious. The bike goes one way, and I the other.
I crash on my hip and shoulder. Not so exhilarating. I can’t even cry out, just watch through a pixel of white dots as the quad bike roars back down the dune, past me, missing me by an inch. Whoever said that landing in sand is a soft option has no idea what they are talking about. Everything goes dark. I cannot move. My shoulder screams, as if it is dislocated. No tears, the pain is far too intense.
The afternoon collapses in a blur for me.
Finally, the sun heaves beneath the horizon and we bump our way back to the car. I get off the devil’s machinery with the deepest relief ever. I pass out as, now at a standstill, the full extent of my pain hits me. The boys hadn’t realised how bad it all was, and I go up in their estimation at this point. My milky skin is blue, I can’t raise my arm and my shoulder clicks and grates. Pain relief is desperately needed, and so the boys decide that the best cure is champagne. I can’t disagree. Off we go to Bubbles, a pink tutu of a bar in the desert, which when you are high on pain, is nothing less than hallucinary…