Once upon a time…….in Abu Dhabi

“It’s only for two years”, we assured our friends and relatives as we packed bag, baggage and bucket and flew  to the Gulf. And before we know it, those two years have stretched into 18 wonderful years here !! ‘Expatriates’ are we? Going by the definition in the dictionary, we probably are; but it certainly doesn’t feel like it . If home is where the heart is then, for sure this is home!

When we first set out all those years ago, we were not sure what to pack and what to leave out. Would we get lentils there? or spices, or coconut oil…? could we risk packing in some pickle; or some home-made ghee? To tell the truth we were not even sure where exactly we were headed to. ‘Dubai’ most were familiar with; thanks to all those loud Bollywood films of those times, which portrayed the typical “Dubai Returned” character complete with colourful floral shirt, thick gold chain, an even thicker gold bracelet and the works! But ‘Abu Dhabi…..???” Relatives looked at us doubtfully. “Abu Dubai ?” they wanted to know. And we hastened to correct them. “It’s Abu DHAAAABI…..!” we would chorus, like some amateurs rendering the opening notes at  an opera.

Once we landed and started finding our way about (our top priority – getting used to the bone-chilling central AC), pleasant surprises were in store for us; as we discovered some familiarities here and there. The neighbouring grocery which stocked a few items from back home; a language we recognised or a clothing we were familiar with, spotted suddenly amidst the crowd in the mall. For sure they had to be Indians!  We would approach them tentatively and initiate a conversation. “Which part of India…?  How many years since…?” And we were secretly comforted by the knowledge that there were others too like us who had left home in search of greener pastures.

Talking to our people back home was a once-a-month Friday morning ritual.  Armed with the precious calling card,  we stood in line at the telephone booth across our building and waited our turn.   Once we were connected and the loving voices from home floated down the wire, our minds went blank and we helplessly watched the figures ticking by on the screen  in front of us, too emotional to say more than a sentence or two.  Incidentally, it was by standing at this very line at the booth for a few months,  that I learned to recognize  the people from different Nations  –  Pakistan and Singapore and Sudan and Indonesia and the Philippines and a few more……. different looks, different languages, different dress habits- all in the same line, on a Friday morning,  with the same need  -to hear from  back home!!

We smiled indulgently at some of the stranger ideas some folks  back home  had about our life-style here. To date I have never seriously tried to correct some of my dear ones as they informed each other in awed tones that in Abu Dubai the drinking water supplied in cans was cheaper than the petrol which flowed through the taps!  Or the neighbour who assumed that the glittering buttons on my dress were of gold! And why wouldn’t they be …..we were living in a land of golden sands, weren’t we???  Yet another,  who I suspect took the Arabian Nights  too literally, was most curious to know if out in the Gulf – vehicles and camels jostled for space together in the streets. Well,  actually, come to think of it, not such a far-fetched notion for them, accustomed  as they are to seeing cows and cars side by side at the traffic signal : one chewing cud, the other guzzling petrol!!

Announcements from friends or colleagues that they would be leaving soon for their long-awaited vacation , would be met with excitement and fervour; almost as if we were the ones going. Letters and parcels to be delivered would be thrust into their hands and they would get something equivalent to a royal escort while seeing them off at the airport or receiving them.  And  when parents of friends came on a visit visa, it would be festival time for all of us. Invitations for dinners and get-togethers would flow thick and fast; and whether they liked it or not, we would almost smother the bemused parents with an over dose of food and affection!

We formed enduring and endearing relationships with friends that we made here. Some even became an extended family and we shared their ups and downs in life just as they did ours. A friend loses a loved one back home and we weep sorrowfully feeling their loss as ours; another celebrates their child’s wedding and we weep again, this time copious tears of happiness!

Through the years we’ve seen quite a few friends retire and settle down in their native land; and we could sense the tussle in their minds as they took the hard but inevitable decision. Though a few did return, because they missed life out here so much. And as they confessed this in sheepish tones, no mention would be made of the generous contribution we’d made for that farewell gift.

Meanwhile the clock continues ticking, relentlessly and inexorably taking us closer to the end of that 2 year stint we originally came for.And when the day comes and  we do pack our bags one last time, I can say this with authority  for ourselves and for  a majority of the expats here; that although we will definitely be happy to settle back in our own homelands, the part of our life spent in this country will undoubtedly be very dear to us…… a country which has given us beautiful, clean and  safe streets; a country which has given us the best of the western world and of our own; a country which has given us so many beautiful relationships and memories to cherish. And, funnily enough,  a country where we don’t even need to learn the local language to get by……   the locals end up learning ours !!!  Can we ask for anything more !!

So,  what’s that country again?  It’s Abu Dhaaaabi !!!!

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