Dubai Airport isn’t the worst place for an eight hour layover. Sure it isn’t Changi, but at least it isn’t CDG.
The people at every gate were the literal stereotype of the destination marked there. Tall, scary Pathan men with kind eyes, and smarmy white men in suits headed to Kabul. Women with gold coverings on their faces at the gate to Jeddah. Men with pointy shoes and women with only their eyes uncovered by the gate to Riyadh. People busy on their laptops at the gate to San Francisco. Tall, smartly dressed African men waiting for their planes to Accra.
After amusing myself walking around all the gates for an hour, and seeing destinations as wide as Tashkent, Guangzhou, Perth, Gaborone, Dammam, Sao Paulo, and Atlanta, I realized why Emirates was the airline where I’d gotten such cheap flights at such short notice. Dubai was literally the center of the world, with desirable destinations to its north, east, west and south. The key to keeping flight costs cheap was location, location, location.
Exquisite scents assailed my nostrils as I walked in to one of the dozens of duty-free stores that littered the airport. I wondered why perfume, makeup, tobacco and alcohol were grouped together always. There was a crowd on the other side of the mostly-empty store. I walked over to see what was so popular.
A long line of Indian dads were queued up by the cashier, with bottles of Johnnie Walker Gold Label. A new Indian dad came up to the line and asked another dad, “Where is the Johnnie Walker?”, and was directed to a shelf two aisles away.
The tears I’d been suppressing for 16 hours came out in a flood, and I shuffled away from the store, my sleeve soaking.
“Another surgery?” I said, shocked, when my mother informed me what the doctor had said.
“It’s spread. He can barely get out of bed now.”
“What are our options?”
“I think it’s best you come home.”
“Okay, I’ll look for tickets…”
“Just come home as soon as you can.”
There had been many times over the past five years, when we had steeled ourselves for the worst. This time, it felt like we all knew the outcome.
Five more hours at DXB. I settled into one of the many reclining chaises by my gate. Maybe I needed to sleep, so I’d be ready for anything once I got home.
Twenty minutes in, I heard a slight disturbance. A harried looking African woman settled in a few chairs away, and had her twin five year old girls sit on either side of her. One of them slipped and tumbled down the chaise, giggling, and then the other one repeated it on purpose. The woman HMMM’d strictly, and the girls pretended to close their eyes. And I did too.
A few minutes later, I heard an unzipping sound and opened my eyes. The twins were unzipping their mother’s carryon. Not my bag, phew. I closed my eyes. A minute later, giggles. I opened my eyes again. The girls had found their mother’s bright orange lipstick, and were using it to draw circles on the carpeted floor of Terminal B. Their mother slept on.
“Mina! Did you do this?” my grandmother asked, in a voice too calm to indicate the severity of what I’d done.
“Yes,” five year old me said.
She struck my face with the back of her hand.
“What possesses you to take Pinky-auntie’s lipstick and draw on the walls? Have you no shame?” Her hand hovered over me threateningly, and I burst into tears.
“Cry, that’s all you do. Now we have to paint this whole wall again. Will you do it?”
I nodded cheerfully through my tears. To paint an entire wall? Oh boy.
She struck me again and I ran away crying.
“Why are you crying?” my father said.
“Grandma hit me.”
“What did you do?”
“I drew with the crayon Pinky-auntie brought.”
“That’s not a crayon. Grownups don’t carry crayons,” my father laughed. “ You shouldn’t draw on walls. Let’s do some real coloring.”
He brought out an old set of watercolor paints.
“Bring your notebook and a glass of water.” he said. I did.
“Wet the brush in the water, then dip it in the paint.” he said. I did.
“Now paint with the brush!” he said.
Having only been given chalk, pencils and crayons before this, I was excited to see how the color spread on the paper.
I drew pointy mountains in brown, and a yellow peeking sun. Then a house with two square windows, and a door. And a river in blue.
Then I tried drawing some red fish in the river. It turned purple. I added more red. It stubbornly stayed purple. My father laughed at my struggle.
“Why is it doing that?” I asked.
“You can mix two colors to make another color.”
“Can I mix blue and green?”
He nodded. I did.
I held up the brush with pink on it. He nodded. I did.
Then more blue.
At some point of time, I realized I’d just been assuming my father was nodding. He was watching the news on the TV behind me, and I’d not bothered to look up for his nod. I continued nevertheless.
Finally, the river was multicolored, and there was a neat little rainbow with all the wrong rainbow colors in the also-blue sky. Unbeknownst to myself, I fell asleep among the paint.
The mother had woken up by now, and handed out smacks to her daughters while scolding them. They expected it, and held out their hands for her to strike. She put the lipstick away in her handbag, seated each of them in the reclining chaises next to her, and went back to sleep.
They couldn’t bear to sit still for more than a few minutes, and slipped out of their chairs. This time, they began chasing each other around the terminal.
I whistled to them. They looked at me and went back to playing. I whistled again, and held out my tablet, with its paint app open. I drew on it with my finger, and they came to me.
“Now you draw” I said to one of them.
She looked at me confused. Oh, right, they probably don’t speak English. So I indicated to them to draw with gestures.
With no trace of shyness, they both began drawing on my tablet, and took turns between themselves to draw.
A familiar picture emerged.
Pointy mountains. A peeking sun. A blue river. I laughed. How does every child know that drawing?
Every few scrawls, they would pause so I could draw as well. I showed them how to pick a different brush and different colors. They picked it up quick, and added a light blue sky and a rainbow between the mountains. Then they added little boys and girls, and a tree next to a square house with a triangle roof.
A while into it, a familiar, heavy feeling came over me. I began yawning. They imitated me, pretending to yawn exaggeratedly, and laughed.
Their mother had woken up and last, and called out to them.
“Ok, bye” I said, waving.
“Tschao” they said.
I hit save on my tablet, and put it away in my backpack.
Then I set my alarm for two hours later, and went to sleep.