I have no idea, Hildegard how the Desert Mothers and Fathers survived out in the heat and the dust! But I did get a glimpse this week of the instruction they might have received by the desert. The sand dunes shift with the winds, ever changing, yet always there. They can’t be tamed or told to sit still, they are restless to be on the breath of God in the ancient land around the Gulf.
Being in Dubai is about as far away from Patrick McCormack in County Clare as humanly possible. It is a place bustling with commerce and aching to be the Hong Kong of the region and it will achieve its ambition very soon. It probably already has in terms of wealth per person! A true melting pot which also has remnants of the baron Star Wars that Jabba the Hut liked to business in- it that is unfair because in this season of Ramadan generosity and courtesy abound in the over 43 degree Celsius temperatures. I think Dubai is what Venice was like five hundred years ago.
Making this my last stop on this pilgrimage provided a hidden meaning not revealed until I got on the plane. I was sat next to a sixteen year old woman who was beautifully adorned in her best clothes, with hands painted and a silver chain holding her veil in place. She was flying for the first time – her only other flight being completed several hours before to get her to Dubai. She had begun her journey though years before fleeing war in the horn of Africa. This night she was going to meet her father and be reunited with other members of her family, her mother placing her on the plane – what a heart wrenching experience that would have been for her mother. She wasn’t sure if she would remember what her father looked like. She told me her name and it means harmony. I thought this was a beautiful present for me to receive – to have harmony sitting next to me!
She asked for my help to fill in the necessary arrival forms and to help her make a phone call to her father if he wasn’t there. I was sure he would be waiting for her at the other end. She completed her form without my help and I just checked it – for her occupation she wrote the word refugee. As it was Ramadan she was fasting and I explained the time zones so she could decide when it would be time to break her fast. The airline was very supportive.When we touched down I said: “Welcome to Australia”. I felt honoured to be the one to be able to say that, knowing full well that she will not experience this welcome everywhere she goes.
When we arrived into Adelaide, we walked together but had to part ways at immigration. After what seemed to me an eternity she came through and I helped her collect her bags as she had requested my assistance in this. All her worldy goods in two bags. The customs officer ushered us through and separated us again. And again I ached hoping there would be no more barriers to her making this journey. Again I had to go on ahead without her.
I emerged from the womb of the customs hall to the usual signs of families with Welcome Home signs, chauffeurs waiting to collect their charges and the promise of tears and hugs. My love was waiting for me and into his arms I was very well received.
I waited to see her emerge too, so that I could be sure that one of the pods of family group belonged to her and her to them. I didn’t have to wait long – she was greeted with great joy – the last of her siblings to come to Australia – having been waiting for more than seven years. I could see an older man and a young man holding her tightly. They were not going to let her go. I watched at distance in tears – witness to a moment that had taken years to be born.
She had told me, on the plane, that she had prayed to her God that she would have help to make this last part of her journey and that God had answered her prayer because I had helped her with her forms. I was the one who had been transformed though, her refugee status serving to support my pilgrimage home. I decided to say goodbye and walked over to her family and shook her fathers hand and looked into his eyes and wished him well. I did the same to her. I was weeping for their joy.
As our car left the carpark, we drove past them walking to their vehicle and there were smiles all round and a final wave between us all. My first thoughts were to her mother back in Nairobi who would be glad of the safe delivery of her child and also no doubt desperately sad for the separation as well.
The sand dunes of their lives and of mine, constantly shifting and moving, taking us further on in new paths, the wind blowing away the tracks of what has gone before. The roller coaster of traversing the ups and downs; the hidden depths and spaces that the dunes offer as you ride them on safari. A safari I have learnt is from Swahili meaning overland journey and is also from Arabic safarīya, meaning from safara to travel. A safari of this outer kind – and overland journey truly came together with the inward journey of pilgrimage in the last moments of my travels.
My 30 days are now at an end with last few days being at home. I unpack, wash my clothes, distribute some gifts, reconnect with those I love, send messages of thanks and support along the way, recast my net and give gratitude for both safari and pilgrimage – the overland and inward journey of this time.