There’s no doubt the UAE is an excellent location for a road trip. It’s not just thanks to the impressive landscape, which ranges from Mars-like orange dunes to craggy mountains and winding coastal roads. It’s also incredibly straightforward to travel between the emirates, usually with just one road in each direction. Fellow road users are also a source of intrigue – on more than one occasion I’ve found myself looking through the windscreen to meet the gaze of a long-lashed camel, or a heard of windswept goats, peering back at me from the truck in front.
On this occasion, I’m heading to Fujairah for a diving trip. It’s a drive I’ve done many times before over the years, on most occasions spotting lone, rudimentary fruit and vegetable stalls by the side of the road, in what seem like the most isolated of places. Each time I’ve wondered who these people are, where they come from and whether anyone ever actually stops to buy anything, or if these tiny enterprises are all in vain.
I decide to take the old route towards the east coast. This involves heading towards Fujairah on the E88 from Sharjah via Al Dhaid, a town whose inhabitants think nothing of parking on roundabouts, and passing through the scrum of retailers peddling everything from bird cages to inflatable aeroplanes at Masafi’s Friday Market. At the next roundabout, I head left towards Dibba.
Some way before the checkpoint, on the non-coastal side of the mountains, I spot a stall in the distance, optimistically positioned on a roundabout. I discover that Jilumiah, a Bangladeshi, has been running the stall for four years, and insists all his produce is from the local farms. He shows me his stock, explaining that he runs the stall every day from 6am to nightfall, and hands me a piece to try: a deep purple mulberry several inches long – something I can’t recall seeing in a supermarket in Dubai. As I savour the sweet berry, a car pulls up and its Emirati passenger steps out to begin placing his order. He greets me warmly, introduces himself as Abdullah Saif, and asks me what I’m buying.
When Jilumiah quotes me Dhs15 for a kilo of mangoes, Abdullah exclaims in Arabic, then assures me I can get a better price, before going one better and handing me two of the perfectly ripe fruits as a gift ‘from his account’. I watch, amused, as he clears Jilumiah out of lemons – kilos and kilos of them – and before I can ask what on earth he will do with them all, he invites me to dinner that evening. When I decline, explaining that I will be heading back to Dubai shortly, my new friend makes me promise to get in touch next time I find myself in the area, or near Khor Fakkan, the coastal town on the other side of the mountain, where he lives. As the car door swings shut and Abdullah departs in a cloud of dust, I give in to temptation and buy a watermelon from Jilumiah for an incredibly reasonable Dhs10, then wave goodbye and continue on my journey.
As I jump back in the car and turn onto the road, I spot another solitary stall ahead in the distance. I pull onto the hard shoulder once again and step out to peruse the unexpected shopping opportunity. Mohammad, who also turns out to be from Bangladesh, is the man who has been running the show here for the past two years. Though he notes the majority of his fruits and vegetables are locally grown, including onions, mangoes, small bananas and watermelons, some he has acquired by travelling to Dubai fruit and vegetable markets. Though he gets a somewhat later start than his neighbour, trading from 8am, he claims to get more business, and says he always sells everything on his stall by the time night falls. Most of his custom comes from passing traffic, mainly locals rather than tourists or weekend-breakers from neighbouring emirates. Our conversation is brought to a halt as suddenly three vehicles pull up and unload a gaggle of customers, who laugh and chat with Mohammad as he weighs out their orders.
As I ease back onto the road, I’m struck by how much the reality contrasts to the outside impression – far from bored and lonely, these guys seem hardly to have a minute to themselves. All of the other customers I speak to are local Omanis from nearby Dibba, or Emiratis from Khor Fakkan or Fujairah.
Afterwards, I muse on whether it’s a coincidence that the inhabitants of places with a slower pace of life than busy Dubai find the time and patience to talk to strangers over their shopping, and actually engage with the person whose business they’re frequenting. I can’t remember the last time I struck up a rapport with someone in the queue at my local supermarket, let alone then learn the answer to something I’d been wondering about for years. Surely that’s just another great reason to take a road trip in the UAE – as if you needed one. And if nothing else, you might just be lucky enough to bag a couple of free mangoes and a new friend.
Know your fresh produce
Dubai’s Renu Ojha of Blue Planet Green People explains how to tell the good from the bad
‘Don’t blindly fall for claims such as “best”, “freshest”, “cheapest”, “organic” and “local”. Ask questions, such as which farm it has come from (labels and stickers should have the UAE agricultural sign), and think about exotic products that cannot survive in this climate.’
‘Look at the colour, texture and smell. Too shiny is not natural. Most veggies should be hard and heavy – tomatoes should be hard and heavy or else they are just water, similarly cabbage should be hard and tight. For fruits, smell is the best way to judge how ripe something is.’
‘Artificially-ripened produce lacks smell and texture. A banana will look green and dry if it is artificially ripened, a mango will be yellow but have no smell.’