SO it happens that I am mystified by stretches of unconquerable sand dunes. The silence and the simple nonexistence that lies at the edge of your own, were you to be sucked in is in its very essence magical.
I have finally gotten to Dubai; the much hyped and ooh-aahed over capital of capitalism. I am done with business for the day and we’re in the car and my very hospitable friends (actually a relative and her friend) are taking me to a spot near Ras Al Khaima for Dune Buggy and we’re having a great time. Bad jokes and stories galore! She mentions one of her other friends who had come to see Dubai and was taken for the same adventure. We’re all laughing at her description of him not knowing the brake from the accelerator and crashing into every possible tree / desert plant present. I mean really, how stupid could one get?
We finally find a place still resisting the cleaning sweep of the Arab authorities in favor of wildlife (the infamous camels) protection. I choose a vehicle; we slowly make our way to the sand dunes. The dunes have high peaks and deep troughs and there is only one bush I see in the wide span of endless sand in front of me. We’re good, and we’re so ready to go. It’s the first time for me and I am thrilled.
I pump the fuel and we’re off… only, WHAM! I have crashed straight into the lone-for-miles tree and turned the dry white branches to powder. I am sitting on my buggy seat rattled to the bone, with a twisted wrist and eyes squeezed shut. My friends come running over and I am silently shaking. I am laughing so hard I am not making a sound and the look of utter incredulous expressions on their faces is not helping! They finally realize I am alright and the irony of the situation in light of our car conversation has us rolling in the sand for a few minutes.
After, we get up, breathe a little, I rub my wrist and we’re off, this time with no bush to block our path. Its awesome! But my dune buggy keeps getting stuck in the soft sand and what with the 1:1000 weight ratio I probably have with the vehicle, my friend has to ramble over every five minutes to get me out. So it’s established I am probably not going to go too far on my own anyway and that thought has eaten its way to my brain and willing it to prove it wrong.
Half an hour later, after a fifth failed attempt to get up a dune without getting stuck, I take a turn and head for flatter ground. My speed feels great and I keep going, dodging bushes and building up the momentum to conquer the bigger dunes. Suddenly I am surrounded by quite huge ones and in an attempt to conquer one, my buggy is stuck. I look around to realize the sand looks a little different and I can hear no one and nothing. Not the rumbling of other buggies behind me. The sun is setting and my vehicle does not have lights.
I am optimistic, I walk a little here and there, I try to get the tires out of the sand myself and don’t even make a dent of difference. Fifteen minutes later I am a little worried. It is starting to get dark very fast and my mobile is not with me. I have walked quite far having no idea of the direction I am going in, or whether I am actually heading farther away in the desert, and I can hear or see no one. I shout and there is no echo. The silence is piercing. The air has gotten suddenly cold. I am at once very thirsty and acutely aware of having no water on me. There is nothing but the sound of grains on wind around me. Of all the things,
I remember Paulo Coehlo and his description of The Steppes in Kazakhstan, in one of my favorite books, The Zahir:
“I saw the endless steppes, which, although they appeared to be nothing but desert, were, in fact, full of life, full of creatures hidden in the low scrub. I saw the flat horizon, the vast empty space, heard the sound of horses’ hooves, the quiet wind, and then, all around us, nothing, absolutely nothing. It was as if the world had chosen this place to display, at once, its vastness, its simplicity, and its complexity. It was as if we could—and should—become like the steppes—empty, infinite, and, at the same time, full of life. I looked up at the blue sky, took off my dark-glasses, and allowed myself to be filled by that light, by the feeling of being simultaneously nowhere and everywhere.”
The silence and the vast expanse of nothingness makes me feel small. Smaller than anything, smaller than the amount of air I take in as I breathe. I can hear my own heart beat a pulsating rhythm and for one fearful yet magical moment I am only the beat, only the pulse that resonates with the ebb and flow of the far away sea and high and lows of the dunes that stretch before me. I understand what it must be like to be on The Steppes; to really understand the fragility of one’s own being and yet to be absorbed in the unity of existence, to feel as if you are a grain in an ocean of trillions. Come a night and a day, you may be only a memory. The thought actually makes me want to stop breathing altogether.
As quickly as the feeling comes it is replaced by apprehension, fear, thoughts of my parents. It is replaced by wonder of what it would be like if I really were to be lost as of now. Surprisingly, it is more wonder than fear that I feel. I realize that beginnings and endings are mere transitory moments and not epic events at all. They are effortless; I remember the butterfly effect. Only, I imagine even an end would be a flutter and not the storm.
It’s only been twenty minutes but my mind has gone through a lifetime of thoughts in the 1200 seconds. I also realize that if I am to get out of here before the sun takes away its light, I have to find my friends. So I leave my buggy stuck in the sand with the engine running and take off my shoes to hike through the sand the other way. It’s hard to walk for someone who is used to solid ground and I trek for another ten minutes and make it to the top of the tallest dune I can find.
Finally, I hear the tiniest sound of my name being called. Faraway on the ground, there is a little mouse standing and shouting my name. I go into my survivor series mode and start jumping and waving my hands while pushing my vocal cords to give their best performance yet. Finally, he turns and spots me and starts to drive towards me. I gesture for him to go around the dune as it is too steep to climb but he can’t understand. He leaves his buggy running and somehow manages to climb onto the dune on his hands and feet. I am so relieved I can hardly stop smiling and apologizing for my adventurous take-off. We hike further back to where I left my buggy running, he pulls it out for me and since there is no way I am driving this thing through soft sand, he asks me to sit on the back facing the other way while he drives and I have the unique experience of seeing receding dunes, not knowing when to brace for a trough or a climb and hoping to not topple over his head as he takes the plunges.
Later when we’ve safely given back the buggies and are in the car, the three of us burst out laughing at the entire episode. For some strange reason, It is the most alive I have felt I n a long time. I guess seeing the edge from a nearest distance that one normally sees everyday makes one aware of solid ground beneath the feet in a way only the enhancing effects of adrenaline can enable.
At night during the boat ride across the Marina, I look at the sea; it is like a black velvet quilt that throbs and moves to a secret orchestra playing far below in its profound depths and I am reminded of the sand again. There is no better poetry than in divine creation. There is no greater humbling than to see the subtle power of nature up close and very personal. And no better way for one to question the compartmentalized conception of beauty, fear, wonder and joy. And to understand that existence and non-existence stand together at the peak of being and without one, there is no other.
Even one of the most materialistic places on earth has its philosophical teachings.
Among Solitary Sands