Al Aweer Hatta Highway, United Arab Emirates - Dubai's gleaming bank towers and Burberry and Escada boutiques built right on the desert sands are barely an hour's drive from a land of stray camels.
We're gliding along the shore of the Persian Gulf in the United Arab Emirates, where the mundane encounters the exotic, and mystery teases modernity. I'm buckled nervously into the back seat of a four-wheel drive, crammed between my two sisters and my cousin. We're following the road signs from Dubai to Hatta - the most accessible portion of the vast desert. Boundless vistas of brown dust await us; we've hired a car to take us on a dune-bashing excursion.
For someone soft-spoken, our driver has a spicy taste in music. The radio blares out high-pitched tunes with thick Eastern beats that echo our own anticipating pulses. As sound pounds our eardrums, urban scenes of glitzy hotels, businesses and Mercedes-Benz public buses give way to increasing expanses of sand.
The panorama looks as if it's computer-generated. Smooth taupe fills the eye in every direction, the warm orange Arabian sun adding random sparks. Pulling off the road, we join about 20 vehicles identical to ours. Our music aficionado hops out of the car to adjust the tires.
Slightly nervous at the imminent escapade, I feign a casual tone. "Er, is everything okay?"
"Have to release pressure from tires. For the sand. The dunes."
I can tell by his bluntness that tourist interaction is not his favourite part of the job.
He jumps back in, cranks up the tunes and revs the engine. I squint against the sun's rays and grip the edges of my seat. My sister Melissa snorts at my paranoia, and we eagerly ready our cameras.
As we zoom into the desert, it feels like a roller-coaster ride. We speed and sink simultaneously, then climb sand dunes that rise up to 20 feet. With each bumping descent, sand sprays wildly against the window. The radio screeches incessantly and the sun glints. I shriek, my cousin Jeannine laughs and the driver sighs.
We attack dune after dune, watching in excited terror as each looms against the windshield, grows in size as we approach and then explodes around our wheels in a frenzy of glittering brown.
We park atop the highest dune to take photos. As the sun sets, it's still about 22°C. My sister Renée flops into the bountiful powder and attempts a sand version of a snow angel. In the distance, dune buggies look like ants and stray camels trot on bony legs along the pink-hued horizon.
An hour later, our stomachs are slightly queasy, and our tight-lipped driver chauffeurs us into a cordoned-off area. Included with the price of our dune-bashing excursion is an "Arabian Nights dinner under the stars."
Wafting scents of uniquely spiced meat and flavourful herbs tickle our nostrils. Imitation Persian rugs and squat metal tables are spread around the meal area in a square formation. It is dark now and the air is cooler.
Jeannine's cellphone bleeps suddenly.
"I can't hear you!" she shouts into the receiver. "I'm in the desert!"
I laugh at the odd sentence spoken into the instrument of modern urban chaos. We have conquered the boundless sand and my cousin is reconsidering her cellphone roaming plan.