Afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason, Dubai

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A view of the tea room.

As my daughter and I walked into Fortnum and Mason Dubai, I worried a little that it would be one of those snobby Dubai places where you’d be judged by your clothes and designer togs (or lack thereof). Considering we were walking in carrying a large plastic bag from Daiso’s, I assumed we had every right to be worried. Add in the fact that the original store in London counts the Queen as one of its regular patrons, we clearly had no business there.

Or so I thought, and was proven pleasantly wrong. For one thing, the kindly English hostess patiently explained the whole menu to me, an absolute afternoon tea virgin. I thought I’d be expected to order two afternoon teas, one for each of us, or at the very least place a second order of a little something, but she said it was unnecessary.

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A sunny corner. You can also choose to sit outdoors.

She seated us at our table with a pristine white table cloth in a pretty corner of the sunlit tea room (well duh, this is, after all, Dubai in April!) The interiors reminded me that my daughter and I were at Fortnum as much for the atmosphere as for the food. There was pretty china in their signature green, silverware that was clearly aged but in the nicest way, glass jars and more. The menus were gorgeous and I wish I had taken a picture, but I was far too conscious of the waiter hovering.

As part of the tea, you get served a pot of tea, five finger sandwiches, some mini desserts and cakes, scones and a full-sized wedge of cake.

To begin with, we selected our tea (Assam) and moved to the cake display to choose our full-sized cake slice. There was a Victoria sponge, a Battenburg cake (which I was forced to reject as it contains marzipan, which my daughter hates) and a chocolate cake. There might have been a fourth choice but at this point my eyes glazed over. We went with the Victoria as it seemed to be the safest bet.

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Clotted cream, preserves and my cup of tea. 

Back at our table, our clotted cream and preserves had arrived as a precursor to the main dishes. Our server poured out the Assam tea using a wee strainer, and then placed a three tier cake tray in front of us.

As a vegetarian, I could eat only one of the five finger sandwiches – mint and cucumber. In retrospect, I should have saved it to leaven the sugar overdose that was to follow. My daughter ate the rest; salmon, beef and egg among others.

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The entire service in all its glory with my daughter caught in mid-chomp.

The two scones were plain and raisin respectively; we tried them with the clotted cream, raspberry preserve and strawberry preserve as was recommended.

By now, the rest of the dessert offerings were beginning to look at me with a menacing eye. I don’t really have a sweet tooth, but my daughter polished off a mini macaroon, a little red velvet thingy, and an itty-bitty chocolate cake. She also ate half of the massive Victoria sponge while I marveled at her dessert-eating abilities. I picked at a little of the cake, ate the apple crumble, demolished most of both the scones and swore not to eat anything sweet ever again in this lifetime. However, I did absolutely love the fruity pannacotta. It was sweet yet tart and just perfect!

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All the mini-desserts, plus more chomping in the background. 

Now that I’m done with my first afternoon tea experience, I believe that the whole experience is better suited for a long and leisurely afternoon with friends, delicately nibbling on sandwiches, popping down a mini-dessert or two (but not more!), drinking copious cups of tea while debating the state of the world (or botox, as the lovely women at the next table were doing). For the two of us, it was a bit of a struggle (in the nicest way) to finish everything laid out before us, but ah well, first-world problems!

 

These are a few of my favourite things

I wrote a while back about my grandmother’s filigree brooch, which is one of my most treasured pieces. Very few of my other pieces have that pedigree – although I do have some antique gold tucked away in a locker across the seas, and loads and loads of the of-the-moment pieces that Aldo, Claire’s or Accessorise see fit to churn out.

But what of the pieces that have some personal history, carry interesting associations or are linked irrevocably to friends and memories?

I’ve always had a fascination for precious stones – rubies, diamonds and emeralds especially. So the first of my modest collection of what I’ll call interesting jewellery, is this, a small pair of ruby earrings belonging, once again, to my grandmother. It was in the very same glass bottle that I mentioned in the post on the brooch. IMG_9061

I wore these for my wedding, attached to a longer, more traditional pair and I remember asking her what stones they were. She shrugged and said “Good red stones” – by which I understood she thought they were rubies. And so they were, as I confirmed many years later, on one of my rare visits to a jeweller. I love the beautiful deep colour of these stones, and the unmistakably old-fashioned and untrendy setting.

IMG_2508But before we consign my grandmother’s glass bottle to the steel armoire, there’s one more little treasure in there – a black opal. Part of a set of loose stones she got from Australia, this stone was hurriedly set in an old gold ring, to make my wedding trousseau look a little more substantial. The opal itself hasn’t been polished to achieve the iridescence and colour of black opals I’ve seen elsewhere, but I love it all the same. Its liquid beauty and simple oval shape make this a classic as far as I am concerned. Also, I have only her word for it that this is a black opal – it might be a chip of marble for all I know.

IMG_4886I bought myself these emerald earrings after having saved up for them for a long time. I’d joined one of those monthly installment schemes, and shortly after I did my financial situation took a nosedive due to various circumstances. So, when the scheme matured, having struggled all year, it was with a sense of deep satisfaction I went in to buy these. I had a choice between really tiny diamonds or more substantial emeralds and I thought these earrings were just perfect. I don’t wear them as often as I should, but consider them an elegant addition to my closet.

IMG_2457This little scarab pin was gifted to me by my little cousin – not so little actually, considering she’s all grown up enough to go to Germany on an exchange programme, visit the Egyptian museum in Berlin and pick out an interesting piece of jewellery for the constant companion of her childhood.

I wear this quirky little creation on the collar of my shirts to add a touch of interest.

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These oh-so-pretty pink topaz earrings were gifted by a close friend in the early days of our friendship. I’d moved cities not long before that, and begun a new job where I was thrown in with a set of wonderfully intelligent yet intimidating women, whose conversation, laced as it was with wordplay and references regularly went over my head – a feeling I am not generally used to.

By the time I got this on my 36th birthday, however, I had firmly become one of the inner circle. That year is always enshrined in my memory as a priceless one of self-discovery, good food, great wine and the best conversations.

FullSizeRender 12This one is a recent acquisition, bought from Lynda Kirby, a seller who specializes in all things vintage. It was one of my favourite finds at the wonderful Arte Market. Considering my budget, my choices were this pretty lucite leaf and an oval cloisonné brooch in black and gold. Her entire collection is gorgeous. She stocks vintage dresses, hats, rings and more. Lynda sources much of her stuff from England, where she’s from. I’m looking forward to going back and picking up more, when time and my purse permit.

As a bonafide magpie, I have my eye on a ton of other shiny things. More brooches, for instance. Something – anything – with the distinctive interlocking Chanel Cs. A pair of earrings with the pearl drops like this, or this brooch. Some real, creamy pearls or even good looking cultured ones – the list goes on an on.

Fleeting thoughts while listening to Schubert and sipping Rosé

img_0928Halfway through Gergely Boganyi’s piano concert at the One & Only Ballroom this weekend, I was reminded of a scene from a beloved book, EM Forster’s Howards End.

It was probably during one of the exquisite impromptus just before recess; I closed my eyes, and a series of images flitted by. I’m not sure what I saw, it was just a hazy montage of beautiful images, possibly even my favourite impressionist art, but it immediately sparked this memory of Helen Schlegel’s response to Beethoven’s Fifth. 

“The Andante had begun – very beautiful, but bearing a family likeness to all the other beautiful Andantes that Beethoven has written, and, to Helen’s mind, rather disconnecting the heroes and shipwrecks of the first movement from the heroes and goblins of the third. She heard the tune through once, and then her attention wandered … and the Andante came to an end… Helen said to her aunt: `Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing,’ and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the the transitional passage on the drum…

No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back,’ breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right.

Her brother raised his finger : it was the transitional passage on the drum. For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent death! […] Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.

And the goblins – they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them. Men like the Wilcoxes, or President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return – and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall.

Beethoven chose to make it all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.”

 

 

The Saturday Tour at Al Serkal Avenue, Dubai

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Ever since I began reading up on Dubai’s vibrant art scene, I’ve wanted to visit Al Serkal Avenue. I held back because I couldn’t quite figure out how to reach the district – which is deep in Al Quoz, an industrial area – and what exactly to do once I got there. How sprawling was the area? Which galleries should I visit? What exhibits should I see?

When I saw an invitation for one of their Saturday Tours on Facebook, I jumped at the chance have these decisions taken out of my hands, and it turned out to be a good call.

Prepping a blank canvas

To begin with, getting to the Avenue was easier than I thought – I took a taxi from Noor Bank metro station, taking care to roll the R on Al Serkal as I directed the cabbie.  The Avenue is actually a gated complex, full of warehouses, many of which have been converted into galleries, studios and cafés.

There were over 20 people gathered at the assembly point, aspiring artists, art enthusiasts, insiders, and I’m sure, novice art lovers like me. The tour was conducted by Victoria, who’s involved in the district’s external affairs, and Luay, who’s part of the programming team.

img_3940Victoria setting a brisk pace on the gallery tour.

Before taking us around the galleries, the duo explained how Al Serkal Avenue came into being and what it attempts to achieve. They told us then, and over the course of the tour, that the area was originally home to a marble factory (the stones being imported from Carrara, no less), how the family had slowly given out the spaces to galleries, how some of the warehouses still went about their regular, non-artsy business, giving the district a true and authentic vibe. There were 12 galleries in the district, as well as many studios, cafés and a theatre.

Filling in the colours

The introduction done, it was time to see some actual art. We covered four galleries in the one hour, and two studios.

We started with Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde which featured the works of two Iranian brothers Ramin and Rokin Haerizadeh. There were video installations, tapestries and all manner of beautiful things.

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The same gallery also had the works of the renowned Emirati artist, Hassan Sharif, who had passed away earlier in the year. As Victoria put it, Hassan Sharif was the best name to throw around to prove Dubai’s credentials as an art hub. She showed us his work that had been featured in the Guggenheim and elsewhere.

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I also loved this clever little sculpture by a Belgian artist, whose name I didn’t catch, sadly. (Diligent googling revealed that it was possibly Fred Eerdekens.) I noticed that quite a few of my tour companions were taken by it too, and all the smartphones were out and clicking away. The squiggles say ‘Forever these words unsteadily will live’.

We then moved on to Gallery Lawrie Shabibi, where the main draw was Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas’ Kaaba-inspired installations and art. In the centre of the room was an acrylic (?) installation, which consisted of blown-up versions of the souvenirs typical to pilgrimage sites, such as Mecca. It took me back to my visits to the many temple towns in India, where after praying, we’d browse through the shiny plastic mementos and jewellery.

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Hamra Abbas’ exhibit inspired by souvenirs she picked up on Umrah. 

There were other exhibits too, so I’ve linked to the gallery page that explains the entire collection here.

Our third visit was to a gallery called Showcase, where the works of Emirati artist Ahmed Al Faresi were on display. Titled ‘We are but one thread’ the exhibition traced the links between native American and nomadic Bedouin cultures.

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This was my favourite exhibit of the entire tour, partly because I’m not as fond of abstract art. The simple colour palette, the cleanness of the work, the theme and the connection to the region could not fail to appeal to me.

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This work by Ahmed Al Faresi had a pelt of fur at the bottom.

Our fourth and final gallery for the evening was Leila Heller, a branch of a New York based gallery. There were several artists on display but I focused on the big canvases by Gordon Cheung.

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Victoria pointed out that the cowboys on bucking broncos referred to the financial markets, and drew our attention to the fact that they were painted over stock listings from the Financial Times.

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A close-up of the work, which shows the stock listings over which it has been painted.

Looking up Gordon Cheung, similar bull-and-bear inspired paintings seem to have been created in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008.

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We were told that this Chinese vase with its drooping flowers, was meant to be a memento mori.

The whole collection was very interesting, and featured many more canvases that I haven’t shown – do read more on it here.

Adding those beautiful flourishes

The tour wasn’t just galleries however, which was good since I was already suffering from something of a sensory overload. We were also taken to two studios. The first of these, Satellite, is the stomping ground of art collector Rami Farook, and is not strictly a studio, but more of an art storehouse and hang out – or so I understood it.

The second was the studio of El Seed, a French-Tunisian graffiti artist, who showed us a video of his amazing project ‘Perception’. The project involved painting Arabic graffiti on the walls of a poor neighbourhood in Cairo, which is also known as ‘Trash City’ for its huge piles of garbage. The graffiti was finally lit up, and it reads ‘Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly, needs to wipe his eyes first’ – a quote from a third century Coptic priest. The project is fascinating, and there are more details on his website.

El Seed mentioned that growing up in Paris, he did not learn to write Arabic until much later. He spoke of how he suffered from an identity crisis when he turned 16. He is a genuinely world-renowned artist but came off as extremely humble and invested in his art.  Which, incidentally sums up Al Serkal Avenue for me. It was one of the most genuine experiences I’ve had since moving here.

The final touches

All through the tour, cafés were pointed out to us. These were housed in huge loft-like spaces, full of light and epitomizing industrial chic.

The icing, or rather the ganache on the cake, was our visit to a chocolate factory, which produces Mirzam, a UAE-only label of artisanal chocolate.

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A geography lesson in cocoa beans.

Mirzam produces single-origin chocolates made from Ghanaian, Indian, Cuban and Madagascarian (I think I may have made up a word) cocoa beans, as well as other interesting variants. The plant smelled heavenly, with the scent of chocolate wafting out of the door into the street. We also sampled chocolate tea, which was surprisingly good.

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I got myself this one. How gorgeous is the packaging? I love that it references travel, and the word itself is the name of a star.

On that sweet note, the tour came to an end. As I walked back in the fading light, I was already looking forward to my next visit to Al Serkal Avenue, to seeing more of the best art Dubai and the world have to offer.

Harry Potter and the Evening of Laughter

A parody of Harry Potter? Sacrilege, you say. Umm. Not quite.

Just ten minutes into the hilarious show Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Experience, it became obvious that Dan and Jeff, the two comedians and actors bringing this show to Dubai, ­have a tremendous amount of affection for and knowledge of the series.

The guys were in DUCTAC the weekend of September 15, 16 and 17, performing at the Centrepoint theatre. We went for the 7 PM show on Friday, September 16 with kids in tow, because as the promotional material says, the show is open to everyone from ages 6 to Dumbledore.

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I don’t want to give away too much of the meat of the show, so here’s a rough outline of its basic premise. Jeff, who is a Harry Potter fanatic, and his pal Dan (who doesn’t have quite the same fervour), plan to showcase all 7 books in 70 minutes, on stage. Dan has been tasked with hiring the best actors for the job, and coming up with the best sets to keep the audience spellbound. Dan does not exactly stick to his brief and hilarity ensues. Along the way, there’s an actual Quidditch game – surprisingly fun – plus a boxing match, a musical number, a whole host of stuffed toys, cake-eating and even a Powerpoint presentation!

Like all classic comedic duos, Jeff and Dan feed off each other. If Jeff is the straight man, then Dan is his perfect foil as the funny man. What’s quite interesting is that their brand of humour manages to cut across age groups. It is physical and silly enough to appeal to the little ones and smart enough to work for the grown-ups too. Also, the duo threw in many off-the-cuff jokes and Dubai references which made it feel less rehearsed and that much more interactive.

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The stage before the show began – yes, I do think that is meant to be the Hogwarts Express.

I can’t really comment on whether the series will work for folks who aren’t familiar with HP. As a die-hard Potter fan, I’m not in the best position to be a judge of that. Certainly, I think you’ll get more of the references and jokes if you’ve read the books or watched the movies.  My son, who’s as much a Potter fan as I am, was skeptical about the whole thing at the start, and kept asking me how two guys could pull off something this ambitious by themselves. Well his loud laughter from start to finish made it evident that his question had been answered convincingly! So much so that he has agreed to accompany me to more stage performances and is willing to see it as an exciting alternative to his favourite games and movies.

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Two Harry Potter fans prepare to be entertained, and were not disappointed. 

There are some clips of their act on YouTube, but I personally would suggest not watching anything beforehand if you’re planning to catch the show. DUCTAC also requests you not to take photos or film their programmes, so I have no images from the show to share.

Apparently the team also have a show called Potted Sherlock out. I do hope they’ll bring it to Dubai – I’ll be first in line to watch it, eat your heart out Cumberbatch.

 

 

A fine start to thirty-nine

My birthday celebrations this year started with a haircut a couple of weeks before the day. For some reason I always snip my hair leading up to this day. I could say that I do it to symbolize rebirth or re-emergence, but I think it is more to do with a subconscious desire to look good in birthday pictures.

Of course, it starts out sleek and pretty but that never lasts. Anyway, hair in place, the celebrations began in earnest.

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The weekend before my birthday, the four of us went to Dubai Marina, where a street festival was on. We spent some time there, watching knife throwing, juggling and other acts from around the world. Our favourite was this Canadian guy whose hilarious patter nearly outshone his antics with the unicycle.

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We then hopped on the tram and went to JBR, as The Walk has now been rechristened.

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After walking around a bit and sampling some red velvet pastry at the Night Bazaar, we walked into La Dolce Vita, because it looked less crowded than most other restaurants. I had a middling-in-flavour tagliatelle in pesto sauce. We also ordered a Margherita pizza, grilled chicken and a steak, all of which were decent.

I do a lot of research on restaurants before I go somewhere, but I seldom end up where I plan to go. I’d really wanted to go to Frankie’s but was too lazy to hunt for it!

We ended the day with a little stroll on the beach, which was emptying out by this time.

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The next day, my bestie, her daughter and I went off to Boxpark on Al Wasl Road. It’s not accessible unless you travel by car, so I’ve put off going there till now.

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Cafés and stores at Boxpark are housed in old shipping containers. Once I got there, it was JBR all over again – I couldn’t decide where to go. There were so many options, each more tempting than the last. A representative for Boxpark came by and gave us free coupons to three outlets, which took the decision out of our hands. We decided to check out The Brownie Box – what else would you name a store that is housed in a box and sells brownies? I got myself a brownie with a peanut butter topping, that was interesting. Not content with that, we also went to Just Salads, where we each got enormous portions at not-very-cheap prices. I’m not complaining though, I had enough to last me for an evening snack over the next three days!

With its rustic footpaths and outdoor seating, Boxpark seems to have been created just to give you the opportunity to take pretty photographs, and of course we rose to the challenge!

I’ve mentally bookmarked the Marimekko café, a fondue joint called The Melting Pot and a pretty Italian place called Bianca Mozzarella to check out later.

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My birthday was a working day, but it went off pleasantly, with no major disasters. I tried to dress for the occasion by wearing the nicest thing in my wardrobe, a Zara dress. The girls prettied up my table, the team bought me cake and generally made a fuss of me.

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In the evening I met the family at Dubai Mall for dinner at Social House. I’d had too much birthday cake at this point, and so made do with a ratatouille, which was very well-made. We managed to get seating in a room facing the famous dancing fountains, and watched as they roared into life accompanied by song.

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We walked by the fountains at the foot of the Burj Khalifa for a while and then took a taxi home.

All that’s left now is to get on with the last year of my thirties, and make it as memorable as possible!

Following a train of thought

In the four decades of my life, I’ve not travelled much, but I’ve still racked up a whole lot of miles.

My parents worked and lived in a small oil town across the country from my home state. And when I say across, I mean across. Their home state was in the very south west of India, and their new world was in its northeastern-most corner.

I can only wonder how my mother, one of the most resourceful women there is, undertook the journey every year with my sister and me in tow. I call it a journey, but it was more like a week-long stately progress with multiple stops. It all began with a three-hour drive at the crack of dawn past tea gardens. This was followed by an hour-long flight, a two-day train ride hurtling down the East coast, and a change of trains for a quick overnight journey, before we could finally deposit our battered, 1980s suitcases on my grandmother’s front porch and run to hug her.

This was an annual affair and I don’t remember ever being bored by it. We’d look out of the window, read books, irritate each other, eat the god-knows-how-unhygienic-they-are meals at various stations, wait eagerly for river crossings, watch cities and states dissolve into nothingness, try to decipher the strange scripts on sign boards or crane our necks to see the whole train as it curved ahead of us – the pastimes were endless and rewarding.

My mother still marvels at the confidence – or foolhardiness – with which she embarked on each trip. This was the 1980s and telephone calls in our part of the world were still reserved for important occasions. Our town only had an intercom, and making calls to other cities was not common practice. More often than not, we descended on our relatives with minimum ceremony. There was no question of asking if it was convenient for them to receive us – there would be a car waiting for us at the station, and that was that.

Unlike me, the few times I’ve travelled as an adult, she carried no medicines and packed no food to eat on the journey. But we still got on fine, and arrived unscathed at our destinations.

That’s not to say we didn’t have our fair share of adventures.

There was this time a cyclone hit the coast and destroyed the railway line that was on our route. Our train re-routed and our two-day journey ended up being a five-day one. We had no idea when our train would eventually reach its destination, and I’m sure the relatives who we were meant to stay with had no idea either. But I was blissfully oblivious to it all, and thoroughly enjoyed the unexpected joyride through new bits of the country.

I remember waking up one morning and seeing large steam locomotives at a huge train station, and being served tea in clay pots. I’m quite sure this happened at two different times but in my mind it is mashed up into one memory. On that same trip, we passed through remote forests and people on our train began pulling the stop chain and disappearing into the night, as though they were on a local bus and not on a train with fixed train stations.

Another time, the cable on our train’s engine snapped, and we were stuck for several hours on the line, ironically just a few kilometres away from our final destination.

Now before this post gathers steam and gets away from me like a runaway train, let me direct it quickly into my college years.

I went to a college just a couple of hours away from home; it became my practice to board a train after class every Friday. The adventures did not abate. There were distasteful moments (dealing with lecherous types), scary experiences (boarding the wrong train and going on an unexpected jaunt through unknown territory) and downright terrifying ones (being all alone in a compartment at 9 pm, which in that part of the world, is tantamount to suicide).

Now, many years later, trains have rolled back into my life in a big way. I take the Dubai Metro to work and back. People who drive (most of Dubai, it would seem) ask me how I can stand the tedium of the journey. While it’s not always been smooth sailing, the metro runs on time, is clean and fast, and people in it usually smell good and dress well – what’s to complain? I usually lean against a door (not recommended) and read. In fact, once or twice I’ve missed my station because I’ve been so engrossed.

Whether I’m three or 39, I don’t see the train journeys ending. Let’s hope that they will lead to new landscapes and new discoveries in the years ahead!

I regret that I have no photographs to accompany this post; but if you could see the images in my head, ah this page would be colourful indeed.