It is a two-hour drive from Dubai to Al Ain, Abu Dhabi. On either side of the lonely highway, you get seemingly endless views of…desert.
And I mean, actual desert. Sing to the tune of “Arabian Nights” desert.
There are rolling dunes of yellow-orange sand. There is a caravan of camels marching slowly in the distance. Legitimate, National Geographic stuff. I spent most of the car ride riveted. It was all so new. I had never seen so much of this kind of sand before.
On our way back to Dubai, I asked Ate Susan if we could stop by the side of the road for a few minutes. It wasn’t enough to just see the desert; I had the compelling urge to walk on it. Set foot on it, for at least a while. I didn’t know when I would ever come back to the UAE, and our flight home was in approximately seven hours, so with an amused expression Ate Susan pulled into the shoulder of a smaller side road away from the busy highway, and TQ and I climbed out of the car.
Walking on dry sand is difficult. The orange grains are loose and constantly shifting. They are not packed together, the way our dark Philippine grains are clumped, sticky on our shores. Because of this, the ground shifts to the many changing faces of the desert. You are always looking for steady places to step, even as your ankles twist this way and that, the grains spilling into your shoes like puddles.
Wading into the desert almost feels like wading into water. When you look out into the vastness stretching on in the heat, you realize that there is more than one type of ocean. You wonder if it’s possible to drown in this one.
I understood longing better, here. I understood what it was like to wish for rain. We have been told that when it rains in the UAE, people stop what they are doing. They leave their flats and offices to come and stand outside their buildings. They whip out their phones to capture this rare occurrence. They press pause on their rapidly spinning worlds and step outside into this precious moment, just watching the water fall.
There is no rain now, in this desert. The sun bears down on our backs, and the sweat starts to bead off my forehead–I wonder if the glisten will show in our photos. The sand in my shoes is scratching at my socks; even through the fabric I can feel the sting. There is no mercy in the cloudless sky. I realized then that the desert sucker-punches you in the gut differently from the way the sea does, but it sucker-punches you nonetheless.
We finish our last round of photos. We get back in the car, shake the sand from our shoes, and we drive home.
Several hours later I am back in the Philippines. I am sitting in the waiting area of the pre-departure area in Manila, waiting for the flight that will take me back to my little hometown.
Outside, it is raining heavily. The drops beat against the glass like a war song. The wind is so strong, it whips the rain around, violently flailing around the airplanes grounded to a halt on the tarmac. Through the speakers, airline representatives announce flight delays, one by one, the sound coupled with the grumbling of would-be passengers.
I can still feel the sand in my shoes from the desert hours earlier. In my mind, the two contrasts try to stitch themselves together…and fail:
How the desert and the rain can exist on two opposite ends of the same world, and yet will never meet.
How one is complete “lack of”. How the other is “too much”.
How we will never know what this collision of extremes will look like.
No one else near me is watching the rain. But I think of Arab skies. Of dark veils lifted to the heavens and its floodgates. Of loose sleeves and sandals splashing in puddles on the street. Of laughter in dark eyes. I think of my own, riveted at the sight of the desert–Would theirs look the same at the sight of this storm?
I think of how the first half of the year has begun to feel like my desert months, of finding safe places to step on ground that is constantly shifting, of looking up into a beige cloudless sky and wishing for rain. I have never felt it as acutely as in this moment, heart straining at a what-if that might not be.
Imagining. Despairing. Hoping against hope.
In a busy Manila airport, the crazy girl staring out the window, and at the rain, puts her notebook down to wipe at her eyes. How strange, the moments and places that catch the sound of your heart breaking.
Maybe, I am standing in the wrong place.
Maybe, I am wrong to ask You for what is not meant to be.
Maybe, it is time to get up and go home.