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Going Away

Woke up early this morning and decided I’d go sit on the balcony swing. It’s the last day I’d be able to watch daybreak across the Dubai skies. It is my last full day in the city.

The sky is gently lighting up, pale lavender and peach-gold-pink near the horizon. The moon is suspended high above, first shrouded by hazy clouds, then gradually revealing itself. It is a quiet Saturday morning, and the perpetual sound of construction is conspicuously absent. I imagine it’ll kick up a little later in the day; Friday is the only day most workers are off in Dubai. There is always ambient noise, though. A gentle buzz is ever present, and it isn’t even 6:30am yet. It’s likely the sounds of lightly humming air conditioners, lazy traffic in the near distance, gusts of dust-laden wind.

The view from the balcony of my sister’s 18th floor apartment is nothing short of spectacular. Dubai Frame is visible to the left, a spare structure dotted with lights and glass windows glinting in the soft light of dawn. Burj Khalifa rises up through the distant mist, surrounded by tall buildings in shades of cream, slate gray, cold blue. Dubai Creek flows to the right, a slender thread of deep blue, hemmed in by dock buildings. The view is somewhat obscured by a new apartment building, currently under construction. Buildings come up quick in Dubai, its landscape constantly filling up with glass and steel towers — straight, curved, stylishly bent, helical and spiral, wrung out, and so on.

I require this time to process the fact of my impending departure. It’s almost time for me to leave, yet again.

After marriage, it feels like I have been on the move constantly. But that isn’t true, really.

I moved to the United States post-marriage, and now I periodically go visit my family in India. My sister moved to Dubai recently, and this is my first visit here. Mom and Dad are visiting too, and this is our first family reunion outside India. Regardless of the place we meet (India, Dubai, wherever), it feels like my time with Mom, Dad and Geetu is always severely limited. A week feels insufficient, two weeks fly by real quick… and it’s hard not to feel like I am on a deadline. There is always an imaginary ticker ticking away, a giant calendar where the days go zipping by.

Every trip home to meet my family is much anticipated. Dates are set well in advance, and plans are made. We have to go here, eat this, do that, buy this, cook that… and so on. I land, get home, unpack… and the ticker starts. I am gradually easing out of jet lag, acclimating to the heat and humidity (it isn’t so bad), getting used to the spice (I am a sensitive eater)… and expanding myself into India in all possible ways. There is family to meet up with, saree blouses to get stitched or altered, jewelry to get repaired, and so on. And thus we get started. Days go by, one after another. There are trips to be made, local and elsewhere. And we keep soldiering along, at least I do.

As the trip nears its end, that giant calendar becomes a constant presence in my head. Misery slowly settles like a giant, dark cloud that follows me everywhere.

(It’s a lot easier now, I must admit. I moved to the United States fifteen years ago, and the India trips during the early days were harder, more emotional. I struggled a fair bit.)

I often dream of a trip where the calendar wouldn’t exist. But that is impossible.

Time with others is always limited.

Now, I could adjust to this much better. I could be philosophical about all these comings and goings. I could take it as a fact of life, that we are all travelers in this so-called journey of life, that every person we meet is a fellow traveler we spend some time with, and so on.

I am fortunate that I have a loving, supportive partner, my husband. And he is a sweet person to go home to. And I also know that I couldn’t live with my parents forever, because I do have a separate life. I forged it (or it was forged by and through me) in a loving, organic way, independent of my parents and sister (not entirely free of their influence, though). It is my own space, and I feel like I owe it its unique and separate place. This is the place where I am most myself, free to dream and explore my individual philosophy, far from anyone’s judgment or expectation.

It also does not help that home/Atlanta is a cold, dark place at the moment whereas Dubai is basking in warm, cool sunshine. As I head back, I am also leaving behind the familiar scents and sounds of Kerala that Dubai abounds in.

Each one of us is a stranger (or a native, if you want to view it in an enlightened/larger context) in a foreign land whether it is the country we were born in, or the one we migrated to.

The sun has risen, a burning glow of orange and gold. The day has lost its initial cool charm, turning bright and white and warm-hot. Dubai is a city of grey and brown, steel and glass, tall spires and shining lights along the creek, souks, beaches with teeming masses, and all the Gujarati thalis and filter coffees and vegetable biryanis and fresh coconut that I could never get my fill of, not this day, not this trip.

But Dubai is going nowhere, although my sister might move out sometime. My parents will go back to India in a couple of weeks. I return to Atlanta tomorrow.

We are doomed (or blessed?) to be travelers forever, or maybe it’s just me. If it isn’t traveling through large physical stretches of land and water, it is through the endless spaces of our imagination. It is through the years that have taken their toll on my parents’ faces and bodies, the babies my friends birthed who are now grown adults, the countless strands of grey I pick off the bathroom floor every day.

Perhaps home is a place or point where we take birth, and it is where we return in order to take that last breath, exhale one final time. And then the journeys begin again.

Unexpected Intimacy

It was a 11-hour flight. And I was determined to make it work this time.

I don’t do well on long flights. I tend to feel stiff and tense. Not me, but my body. Perhaps they’re one and the same. I cannot fall asleep, instead drifting endlessly between slumber and wakefulness. All this waking and sleeping makes for some lucid dreaming too. The idea of writing this also came about as a half-dream.

I was flying solo this time. Leg space was fairly good, and I managed to snag an aisle seat. My flight companion was a young light-haired boy, all skinny arms and legs and light freckles. He effortlessly squeezed past me, and settled into the window seat. I started to make myself comfortable too. Covered my knees and legs with the airline blanket, wrapped my beloved orange shawl around my shoulders, slipped on the eye mask… resolved to SLEEP. I also took a tablet of Jatamansi, a nerve relaxant herb that has helped me with sleep in the past.

It seemed to work. Six hours drifted by. I felt like I was awake but I must have been asleep. Is that odd? Sleep is a mysterious state, and it is hard to pinpoint where exactly you are in it.

A couple of hours or so later, I felt a nudge on my shoulder. My young friend had fallen asleep, resting his upper body on the arm rest between us, legs curled up. I was sitting up, my seat slightly reclined, and his shoulder brushed against mine. In a couple of minutes, I had fallen back into my wakeful-sleep mode. A little (or lot — who knows?) later, I straightened up, my knee bumping against his. I awoke to find him snuggled on the other side, knees drawn to his chest, pretzel-like. He was a slender contortionist, this young fellow. As I pulled my legs up, deciding to sleep on my side, my feet pushed against his body. The cabin was cold, and I felt a gentle warmth radiating from him.

All night long, we kept wriggling around in our respective spaces, trying to get comfortable without disturbing the other. My friend kept squeezing his lithe body into all kinds of semi-circular formations, and I tried to get somewhat comfortable so I could get some sleep… and through these mutual efforts, our bodies connected. He was scarcely awake (seemed to be a light sleeper) and I was all adrift too. I found this strange intimacy oddly comfortable.

Perhaps it was his youth that made him so unselfconscious and free with his body, an utter lack of physical awkwardness. He stepped in and out of my space with absolute comfort and ease, and even though I wasn’t all awake, I was charmed.

Marrakech

Marrakech is a city on steroids. At least, some parts of it are.

We fixed on Morocco as a vacation destination, and it was only because… well, where do you go in the dead of Northern Hemisphere winter? India was too far, and Europe was too cold. North Africa seemed a good option. In fact, we had decided to visit Morocco in 2017 but P’s father had had to undergo surgery, and we ended up canceling all plans.

2018 came around, and this time we made it to Morocco. There were two cities on the itinerary: Marrakech and Essaouira, two places that couldn’t be more different from each other.

Marrakech is colorful, loud and exciting, sometimes dizzying in its intensity. It is a city of winding lanes, old Riads with colorful tile inlays, outdoor cafes and cigarette smoke, Hammams and leather shops and old museums and brass lamps and sticky sweet treats, and everything else you’d ever want to bring home with you. In contrast, Essaouira is like a chilled sorbet, or cool warmth, shining blue skies and seagulls in flight, families admiring the sunset at the promenade, sipping mint tea in the old square.

(I must take a pause here to mention that many travel blogs write endlessly about aggressive vendors in the Old Medina in Marrakech chasing you down, trying to sell you stuff. THAT never happened to this brown couple, meaning P and I. Just saying that it is important to take these travel experiences with a hefty pinch of salt. P nearly decided to start a blog of his own: Brown Vegan Traveler. Because, context matters.)

Back to Marrakech. (I’ll write about Essaouira in a separate post.)

We landed one afternoon at Menara Airport. Our AirBnB hostess had arranged a taxi that brought us home. During the taxi ride, I realized that my knowledge of Arabic had dwindled to basically, nothing. I’d lived a year in Cairo (2002-03) and picked up a smattering of Arabic around that time. But it was so many years ago, and I recollected very little. My knowledge of French was somewhat better, and P has some familiarity with French too. So we figured we should stick to French and give up on speaking/deciphering Arabic, sigh.

Riad Larouss is a small neighborhood, and that’s where Valeria runs her cozy little AirBnB. We had a sweet little room, and there was a common area for breakfast and lounging. Valeria gave us a map with markers showing the locations of the Riad, the bus station, Jemaa Al-Fenaa, Old Medina, museums, etc. She was a wonderful hostess, and we got off to a great start discovering the vibrant city that is Marrakech.

Koutobia Mosque, Marrakech, Morocco, Jemaa Al-Fenaa

We went out the same evening and walked to the Medina. It was late evening, and the central square known as Jemaa Al-Fenaa was already filling up with food vendors and street performers. The air was cool, and I felt so comfortable, so happy to be in Marrakech. I felt very much at home… there was an instant connection, a sense of warmth and joy and familiarity that pervaded the entire trip, really. Perhaps it came from the fact that I had been in North Africa before, that I had fallen in love with Arabic language and culture all those years ago?

We had a couple of days in Marrakech before we left for Essaouira. So we did what all tourists do.

Walked through the countless lanes in the Medina, all ending in Jemaa Al-Fenaa; bargained in a very decent and honorable way for a beautiful silver teapot; landed up at a quaint store selling all manner of olives and pickles where the owner, a sweet old man, generously allowed us to taste an assortment of items (we bought so many kinds of olives); gawked at the gorgeous Bahia Palace; walked and ate and walked and ate.

Marrakech Museum
Olives, Jemaa Al-Fenaa, market

The search for vegan food takes us everywhere, and I have learned that it’s mostly good to steer clear of eating joints that have “vegan/vegetarian” in their name or description. You will be better served by finding out what local dishes you can consume safely and happily. And we learned that harira and tajine, two North African preparations, can be made vegetarian.

We chanced upon Dar Mama, a tiny eatery situated close to our Riad, run by a group of young men (Senegalese?) who played the most amazing North African music on their boom box, and kept the space warm with a tall brazier. This was February, cold and rainy sometimes, and we were happy with all the warmth we got.

Harira was delicious, as we realized. Day 1, P and I shared a bowl. Next visit, we ordered a bowl each. Then, we ordered two bowls each! Harira is a chunky soup of chickpeas and tomatoes, and it kept our insides warm and comfortable as we walked miles through cold and wet Marrakech.

We ran into some drama, and yes, it was on my account. Turns out that I had booked our Riad for two nights, and we were in Marrakech for three nights before heading out to Essaouira. It was a mad scramble, as we frantically tried to find a place on AirBnB to spend the night. We were lucky. We found an old Riad, managed by a pair of friends. They ran the place like a hostel for friends. They served us a sumptuous dinner. They had a folk musician visit that evening who played for hours, lulling us into a sweet space that felt raw, special. They served us the best breakfast ever: lacy beghrir, toasted Khobz, delicious Msemen. Every meal included mint tea, freshly squeezed orange juice, butter and jam. We feasted like kings. It was such a precious experience, and it came about because of my AirBnB gaffe!

We headed off to Essaouira the next morning in a state of wonder, and also understanding that THIS is what travel teaches you.

To be spontaneous, to be courageous, to have faith in oneself and one’s partner and in the kindness of strangers, to be aware without being fearful, to be both kind and accepting of kindness.

Scotland

A couple of years ago, my husband and I visited the United Kingdom for a weeklong vacation. We stopped at London to meet P’s aunt and cousin. I also had the chance to meet a dear friend whom I hadn’t seen in well over a decade. We walked around the city, taking all manner of public transport to get around. It was a lovely day, and we ate, walked, and talked a lot.

Two days later, we headed to Scotland where I proceeded to fall in love with everything.

I must explain what led us to Scotland, and Isle of Skye, specifically. I am a huge fan of Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. I love almost everything the man writes. His “La’s Orchestra Saves the World” feels a bit like the story of my life; it is likely my all-time favorite book. McCall Smith has created a bunch of memorable characters, and one of my favorites is Isabel Dalhousie. She is a mother, wife, philosopher, editor, detective, and a lifelong do-gooder. Isabel labors long and hard over the moral implications of everything she does, and yes, I mean EVERYTHING. She ponders over the ethical implications of overfishing (“do we owe fish to future generations?”); she broods over the fact that she is a wealthy woman who can afford a full-time housekeeper.

Isabel is incapable of letting even a single act of injustice, however minor, pass unnoticed; she cannot but do something to right it, anything. And ever so often, her well-intentioned acts land her in messy/unpleasant situations. But that does not deter Isabel. Her heart bleeds for every individual suffering on the planet, and she feels “moral proximity” with everyone who crosses her path, including a wild fox who haunts her garden and plucks out flower bulbs. Sincere to the core, Isabel is half-American, a gentle mother and loving wife, a lifelong devotee of philosophy and classical music and cryptic crosswords… what’s not to love about her? I must confess, though… sometimes I lose patience with her. I find myself getting exasperated with her benefactor tendencies. Back off, Isabel. It isn’t always your business.

Isabel lives in Merchiston Crescent, Edinburgh, and one of her investigations takes her to the Isle of Skye… And that explains why we visited Scotland. Plus, I love the name “Skye.”

We spent a day in sunny gorgeous Edinburgh, then boarded a tour bus to Skye. It was a three-day tour where driver Nick doubled up as a tour guide. And he was one helluva excellent fantastic tour guide. He brought Scotland to life for a bus of tourists, all visiting from places as far as India, Korea, Canada, China, and United States. I think we collectively fell in love with Nick, and Skye, and Scotland.

Nick told us stories of clan rivalries, massacres (“No hawkers or Campbells”), Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites, William “Braveheart” Wallace, and more. He told us why he didn’t wear kilts often (truth: you don’t wear underwear with a kilt), and that he wasn’t such a big fan of haggis (the vegetarian version is fairly decent too). Nick had a special Skye playlist that he played all through the trip, and it featured Gaelic music that touched my heart in a secret, lonely way. I just couldn’t get over the pipes and their melancholy, and they provided a fitting soundtrack to our trip driving through the brooding Scottish landscape with its countless hidden lochs and lilac bracken-laden lunar landscapes. Scotland is a dreamy, magical place that appealed to my inner romantic in a strangely pensive way.

Scattered like gold, from Dunkeld to Aberfeldy
The seasons unfold, that’s the things we love
Walk through the field, in the frost of a winter morning
Nature revealed, that’s the things we love

No, don’t ask us to take what we can give her
She lives inside us and we know her well
There’s no right reason to fear or to forgive her.

Standing alone, on top of the Ben-A-Caly
Great rocking stone, that’s the things we love
Catching the eye, of the owl in the early morning
Great buzzards cry, that’s the things we love

No, don’t ask us to take what we can give her
She lives inside us and we know her well
There’s no right reason to fear or to forgive her
It’s so easy, it’s just the things we love

(From Dougie Maclean’s “Perthshire Amber – Fourth Movement”)

The tour ended and we were back in lovely Edinburgh for a day before we had to head back to London. We spent the morning clambering up Arthur’s Seat, a hill rising above Edinburgh to a height of 822 ft. As we rested a bit drinking in the fabulous views, a British group came up a winding, narrow path. A gentleman in a pink jacket seemed to be the troupe leader, and he exclaimed, “Where is Arthur? Surely he should have been here, welcoming us with a drink.” We also spent a few joyful hours at the National Scottish Gallery gawking at beautiful art.

We took the train to London the following morning. Spent a day with family, and then it was time to fly back home to Atlanta, sigh.

My heart felt full yet heavy. In a matter of days, I had developed a connection with Scotland and I felt sad leaving. Language and landscapes, music and melodies and memories of a glorious past, castles and cliffs and rocky shores and faerie lakes — I’d miss all of them. I’d miss Nick and his good cheer, his “yes, my dear?” and “Huzzah and Hurrah” so bad. Had I been younger, I’d have happily and miserably fallen in love with Nick/Scotland (definitely conflating the two) and cried my eyes out all the way across the Atlantic. Thankfully, none of that happened. I hope Nick is happy in Edinburgh, and I am certainly happy here in Atlanta.

As I savor the sublime pleasure of a gorgeous Fall afternoon here in the South, watching the sun illuminate my home and the fruit trees in our backyard, I cannot help but dream of Scotland, and plot when I can go back next.