It’s five o'clock in the morning and we are already on our way into the middle of the Dubai desert, travel mugs of steaming Nescafé in hand. Neither one of us would normally eat much at this hour of day, but since what we are about to embark upon requires endurance and strength, we also grab power bars and fruit for the car ride. I’ve just landed in Dubai from Mumbai, my adopted home of late. Like usual, I don’t have a departure date in mind but even a lifetime spent here wouldn't give me enough time for horse riding through the desert. I'm here to escape the chaos of Mumbai, but also to visit my closest friend, Fatima, who has been living here for seven years now. She, like myself, is a horsewoman through and through—both of us starting our riding careers before we could ride bikes and before we even knew how to count our age on our fingers for those who insisted on asking every time we got in the saddle.
Fast forward a couple of decades and here we are, bumping along through the desert in Fatima's pickup truck on our way to the stables where she works. By 6 AM we are in the saddle and kilometres into the vast Dubai desert, no longer in the confines of a riding arena in North America or Europe. In Dubai, you can either ride at 6 AM or at 6 PM. All other times are too hot for the horses. This being the desert, at 6 AM it is actually still quite chilly so Fatima and I wrap our scarves around our necks, pulling them up above our noses. This also helps protect against the inevitable sand storm kicked up from the horses in front. Beneath our helmets and scarves, only our eyes are visible. We, along with ten Indian stable boys, take off at a brisk trot to warm up. For as long as we trot, we chat amongst ourselves, checking to see that none of the horses are lame and that everyone is awake. We briefly discuss our plan—gallop for 25 kilometres in a massive loop around the stables, get off and switch to the next group of horses, and gallop another 25 kilometres. Repeat for several hours until the sun is high in the sky and the heat forces us inside. When Fatima is ready, she raises her hand in the air. And that is all the signal we and the horses need.
And then we are off, tearing through the desert like real life cowboys—in our case, cowboys and cowgirls—at speeds that make my heart soar and my lips form a smile so broad it hurts my cheeks. Looking around me, all I can see is sand, the dawn sky and the handful of horses in our small group. It's so surreal: the sound of hooves all around, a synchronised beating of the earth; horses snorting from excitement; the sun, just beginning to peek out over the horizon. The morning is cool, misty, and full of potential. This is my definition of freedom.
The desert air. The scent of quickly evaporating dew and freshly churned sand. The wind whipping through your hair, whistling past your ears. It seems almost to whisper to you, telling you its secrets: that there is nothing between you and Heaven but your narrow belief that Heaven cannot be found on earth. There is an old Arab proverb that says, “The wind of Heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears”.
It often occurs to me during these rides that if I died while riding out into the middle of the desert, I would die in peace and happiness. It is, admittedly, a somewhat morbid thought, but it isn’t without warrant. Riding in the desert is dangerous. If you were to fall off (and there is a pretty high chance of you falling off due to the speed at which you are riding), you are virtually alone and kilometres away from help. These horses and these speeds are reserved for the well-heeled, courageous rider. And mad men and women.
To read part two of this story, click here.
A New York City native, Fahrinisa Oswald currently does not have a fixed address, spending most of her time somewhere between NYC, Asia and the Middle East writing, photographing and editing for a living.