“You will have 5 sons! 5 SONS!!! Hee hee hee”, shouted the elderly Emirati man. My wife calls him Baba. She wasn’t pregnant yet but he was so adamant, in a cute way, that we encouraged his predictions. It helped that Baba had far more wrinkles than teeth. It also endeared him to us the way he walked quickly but intentionally despite that fact that he had lost a foot. He was like an aged Arab pirate.
Baba had grown up in a time before the United Arab Emirates were the Emirates. He was a pre-Emirati. As a Bedouin boy, he developed in a time when people lived in thickly weaved tents and worked primarily after the sun went down. They traveled continuously, basing their moves strategically on water and other coveted resources. Baba had seen life. A difficult, calloused, sun scorched life that many can’t even imagine. And now, Baba stood in one of the newest hospitals in the world, with stunning architecture and glass walls 6-stories high, enjoying the cool refrigerated air whistling through the halls of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
The home he once knew is now gone. The closest he may come to experiencing that life is when there is a cultural festival and the government breaks out their Emirati package of activities and props. Falcons, henna, cane and hair dancing, basket weaving, pearl diving, and many other Emirati customs are paraded around in remembrance of their past life, their past home. But that home is gone. They do not live in tents any longer, they live in the new world. Their homes are now apartments on the 30th floor of state-of-the-art high rises. Or they live in mansions. Walled-off compounds with 10, 15, or 20 rooms, all tiled with marble or ornate cedar. Generously cooled at all times of the year. How odd it must be to know you can never return to the home where you grew up. To the life where you were raised.
Interesting enough, I met many expats while traveling abroad who live a similar story, except there’s is one of choice. I met one family who have been abroad for over ten years. When they first moved abroad they took regular trips home to see family and friends. But with each passing year they had fewer and fewer family and friends to go home to. Before long, they had little reason to return home at all… so they didn’t. When others traveled home for the holidays, this family went to Disneyland Tokyo, or Paris, or Shanghai (FYI – there are Disneylands EVERYWHERE).
When I asked the family whether or not they had a “home” somewhere, they replied very honestly.
Some of the reasons for this disconnect from the world they had once lived is because people live their lives despite whether you are there or not. The constant traveler is a novel thing. Much like an old traveling salesman, they swing into town on a whirlwind of excitement, sporting stories, gifts, and wares from around the world. They captivate with their tales of indigenous people’s from far corners of the globe. They impress with their seemingly endless knowledge of foreign cultures and world politics. But then they leave, and life continues as it did before.
When I first left Philadelphia and began the adventure of Abu Dhabi and beyond, it was a marvel. It was captivating and impressive and stretched me in so many ways. It was as Gandalf had said to told Frodo in the Lord of the Rings.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
The travelers life is an adventurous one, yes, but all too often it lacks a certain something. After a while, if you are listening to the pinings of your soul, you might begin to hear the mighty whisper of constancy. Despite the tremendous allure of a life lived on the long and winding path, with nothing but a backpack and a walking stick, there is a greater call to make an impact in a place you call home.
This week, my wife and I made that choice and signed the dotted line. We bought a house. While I may still be the Freckled Traveler, I am most certainly not a Freckled wanderer. My roots have been dug and my home – of stone, and wood, and earth – has now been cemented alongside my resolve. I always knew that, like Baba, my Bedouin days of wandering from one source to another would pass, and a new generation would emerge. Like Abu Dhabi, the old Bedouin ways of my life are far gone, only to be referenced through picture and embellished story. Bittersweet as that may be, the new life that grows from the roots of my new home, I know, will bring far greater joy than the past sights of the passing horizon.