Give Me 5-Star, or Give Me a Tent

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Michael, feathering our tiny nest

My friend's 9-year-old son describes himself as a "5-star kind of guy." In the Middle East, where mere mortals can afford 5-star hotel stays, I can see where he's coming from. I either want a fancy hotel experience, or I want to travel someplace where there are no hotels at all. That said, funky guesthouses, B&Bs, and homestays can also be a lot of fun. But please: no safe, beige, budget-friendly chains.  

Last week, I went camping with my family and friends out in the Saudi desert. I mean way, way out in the desert. There is no internet, no electricity, no running water (absolutely none of that), no cell phone service. There is no roadside assistance. No assistance. No roadside. No road. There is nobody to call if, oh, say, you happen to drive your SUV down a steep ravine into a canyon that has no exit. For example.

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Woman driver

(I guess I can't leave that one hanging. We managed to get out of the ravine, obviously, because here I am back in my office, snug as a bug in a rug. Thank you, dear husband, for being an excellent uphill driver and for remembering the secret trick of letting most of the air out of the tires for better traction. I pray that you are always with me on outdoor adventures when I drive the car into blind canyons.)

Right. So, I'm fortunate enough to be able to experience a part of the world that is relatively untouched by modern civilization. Have you ever driven across the desert floor, with nothing but sand and a bit of scruffy brush from one horizon to the other? It's at once serene and unsettling. And one thing is for certain: nobody's going to leave the light on for you.

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The desert northwest of Dhahran

The first night we camped, I had to get up in the middle of the night to pee (a big camping negative.) I clambered out of the tent, banging an elbow, bruising a kneecap, waking my husband in a blind grope for shoes and toilet paper. I unzipped the tent flap, flopped gracelessly outside, and was greeted by a broad, hazy swath of the Milky Way twinkling down on our desert campsite. I have never seen so many stars. The night was inky black with the campfire burned down to ash. The air was crisp and cold. (Don't you love a brisk alfresco constitutional?) For the first time, I was grateful for a thimble-sized bladder. Otherwise, I may have missed the Milky Way altogether.

Our campsite the second night was nestled at the back of a rift in a sandstone escarpment. The wind whipped up that night, but we were sheltered. It was actually kind of cozy in our little igloo tent, which shook in the wind but remained securely anchored. On day three of the trip, I was over it. Everything smelled of wood smoke and unwashed campers. We headed back home and relished the exquisite luxury of hot showers and real beds. 

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I.M. Pei's lovely Islamic Art Museum

Several days later, I traveled with my in-laws to Doha, Qatar. This is the first time they have been to the Middle East, and I pretty much insisted that they go and see I.M. Pei's last masterpiece, the Islamic Art Museum. Michael and I spent a day there in 2010, and I wanted to go back. The family flew 18 hours to get to Saudi Arabia; what's one more 45-minute flight?

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One of the Oryx Rotana's several swanky dining venues

In Doha, we went 5-star. We stayed at the Oryx Rotana, which has acres of lobby furnished with long, low, white leather couches and festooned (yes, festooned!) with blooming orchids. We ate at their tapas bar, and couldn't believe our good luck when a Cuban trio set up. They began playing songs from the Buena Vista Social Club, which is my father-in-law's favorite CD. He was practically doing the samba in his seat, and the singer kept winking at us. He came over between sets for a visit (thankfully, my family speaks Spanish even if I can barely spit out half a sentence.) The singer, like the other two members of the trio, was Cuban, but he now calls South Africa home. He was fortunate enough to have married a diamond magnate's daughter, and he pursues his music career just for pleasure. Nice work!

In most Middle Eastern countries, alcohol is only served in five-star hotels--another reason to stay in one! We enjoyed several glasses of organic Spanish wine (a red and a white) before calling it a night. Back in my room, I found that my bed had been turned down and my nightgown refolded at the foot of the bed. I kicked off my stylishly impractical shoes, unconcerned about whether a scorpion might take up residence in one overnight. I burrowed into the soft, snowy-white bedlinens for a deeply satisfying sleep. When I got up for a midnight run to the loo, I had only the soft glow of a night light to guide me.