LAST August while I was staying on the Persian Gulf, I was able to visit the Ladies' and Children's Park in Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is a modern oil-boom-desert-town with a large expatriate work force. Children from all nations visit the park, bringing their moms and ``aunties'' with them. ``Aunties'' may be neighbors, big sisters, or older cousins. Everybody comes dressed for a gala occasion, especially on Friday, which is the Islamic sabbath, a great day for birthday parties and impromptu candy-bar picnics.
Ancient desert dwellers envisioned paradise as a garden, and Sheikha Fatima, wife of the present head of state, has spared no expense in providing a ``heavenly'' play space for all the kids in the Emirates.
Inside ``The Ladies' and Children's,'' bougainvillea explodes in fuchsia and white profusion everywhere, even on Ferris wheel girders. Date palm trees spill pirates' gold; it resembles butterscotch drops, not the brown dates I buy at the supermarket back home.
The grass is watered carefully all night by proud gardeners in turbans and Pakistani work robes. They make sure the lawns are always Easter grass green under the Gulf sky, which is always Easter egg blue. The playground equipment is disguised as fruit and animals; a red and yellow castle hides a jungle gym, a giant banana becomes a glider.
I had been advised not to take photos in the park, especially of the ladies, and when I tried, discreetly, my camera jammed. Memory is a sort of camera, however, and I've recently discovered that I brought many ``pictures'' home.
While I write, Ohio's first snow is falling; the radio sends news of the Iran-Iraq war and of bombings everywhere. The snow at the window becomes sand blowing; it falls in images from that day in the park. Imagine ... girls wrapped in red and gold saris are sliding down a giant pineapple; boys in white robes and red beanies climb a huge beanstalk. Imagine a preschool cowboy and a Bedouin princess, each waving a Popsicle while they ride a purple camel.
Imagine how, toward the end of my visit, I discover a Ferris wheel revolving under a bougainvillea arcade. The Ferris wheel man is listening to a Walkman. His passengers are a French kindergarten class and a few boys from the Islamic ``baby'' prayer school. Every single child is smiling beatifically and licking a double-dip cone. I wonder if the Ferris wheel man has treated everyone so he can listen to an important soccer replay in peace.
Beyond the Ferris wheel is the Super Dodgem Bump Cars Pavilion. Everyone who drives the cars must be 8 or older. A 10-minute Bump Car ride costs 1 dirham, around 30 cents. I find about a dozen girls and as many boys bumping and racing. Many of the boys wear dish dashas, the long white robe that is a supreme blessing in tropical weather. The dish-dash boys are equally matched by a bevy of covered-up girls who tuck their long black skirts under them so they can drive, thus revealing jeans and Addidas. Their black shawls fly behind like Superman capes! Everybody brakes, crashes, squeals. Boys bump girls, and vice versa.
A chubby redhead who begins the ride by freezing at the wheel and threatening to bawl is laughing in a minute and wails like a fire siren in imitation of his big sister who, after all, knew best when she lifted him into his car. Somebody in a gold dress yells an ack-ack-ack in the voice of a toy machine gun or, I hope, a giant wind-up tractor.
Two Syrian boys in Big Bird shirts and cutoffs pop bubbles and crash simultaneously. I know they're Syrian kids because their satchels left on the Dodgems bench sport I Love Syria decals. The PA plays camel race music, which is ``MacNamara's Band'' with a disco beat.
The turbaned Super Dodgem man manages to chomp popcorn madly while he runs the equipment. When the ride is over, he produces a box of mango juice and wipes his brow.
I share a bench with a Philippine baby sitter in a denim jump suit. She holds a movie magazine on her lap. When the Super Dodgem stops, she asks, ``If my employer takes us to New York, will there be parks like this?''
Before I can answer, she is besieged by three black-veiled girls demanding face tissues and ``red soda.'' As I walk away, I hear them ask the sitter if I'm ``Am'ricani'' or ``Inglesi.''
I feel as though the humidity is 99 percent; the temperature was 106 degrees when I checked earlier today. My clothes are sticking to my body. Behind the Ferris wheel, the fountain, and the Super Dodgem is the Ice Cream Castle, an eight-sided glass structure perched magically on a cement hill with many fun-to-climb steps. Inside, one can order such contemporary items as cold Pepsi, Polar Bear bars, Twix, and Fudge Bunnies! What's more, the ice cream man has sacks of gold-wrapped chocolate on his shelves, and he keeps candy in heart-shaped boxes all year long, not just on Valentine's Day.
Instead of a gumball machine, he has a stuffed parrot. In exchange for a dirham, this fat green bird speaks taped messages, such as ``Won't you be my honey,'' and ``Gosh, you look awful,'' and ``Oh crackers!''
``Polly'' guards a display case of ``Sinbad's Treasure Chests,'' small cardboard trunks containing toy watches and plastic lobsters and spiders!
In this octagon ice cream palace, children can sit under baseball posters and eat Taiwanese taffy and American Popsicles. Little brother's baby bottle can be filled with chocolate pop or water from the drinking fountain, and if he's not too busy, the ice cream man will warm a baby bottle in his own electric soup cooker, which allows him to drink hot soup. Yes, the ice cream man is a wizard, for in his shop you are charmed by the most beneficent miracle of all. The Ice Cream Castle is vanilla-flavored, air-conditioned, COOL.
I sit storing images, sipping cold pop, waiting for the sun to set. In the Gulf states, the sun sinks in a quick pastel blur, but dusk is long, satiny mother-of-pearl. This Friday in the Ice Cream Castle at the Ladies' and Children's Park, I wait until the sun is a mere smudge on the glass wall and I can see without squinting behind my dark glasses.
I say goodbye to the ice cream man and walk back through the park, through its fantastic tableaus of children in international garb, arranged on elephant carousels and giant pineapple-and-banana gliders. Girls in fluttering saris stand on ladders in red and white castles under date palms and bougainvillea vines. My enchantment has not diminished.
I pass the watchman's post with the white-robed guard outside. He is fanning himself with Al-Khalij, a Gulf newspaper, and stares sternly at me. I step through the gate.
Other ladies and their children are leaving also. Our taxis, limousines, and Land-rovers are in attendance. The drivers wear dish dashas, sport suits, and mean jeans. Some of us must wait for rides, and we use the time to depressurize from the fairyland inside to the corporate oil-boom town outside. We know, all of us, tall or short, in saris or denims, that we can return to our Aladdin's lamp world when the park reopens.
While we wait, sand gets into our veils, our satin shoes, and our joggers. Some of us worry about the latest Beirut bombings, some think ahead to office complexes where high-powered deals are made. Some of us remember we must iron shirts or call Johnny's math teacher. But I think we all take a piece of the park home inside of us.
That's why we're smiling to ourselves as we stand bravely if lopsidedly in a single glass slipper. And wait for the world to change back into a pumpkin until next time, next time.