Dreams in my bottles (Sunday Times)

Dreams in my bottles
Shubnum Khan
In Dido’s 2009 hit song, Sand in my shoes, she sings, Two weeks away feels likes the whole world should have changed/ But I’m home now/ And things still look the same/I think I’ll leave ‘till tomorrow to unpack/Try to forget for one night that I’m back in my flat, and in a few words she captures the surreal feeling of returning home from some foreign place where immersed in new sights and sounds we finally felt alive. To remind us how brave we were, we collect fridge magnets, take photographs and post #tbt during our lunch hour.
But some of us do other things.
As a teenager sitting at my local library in Durban I was inspired by novels that exposed me to foreign places like the American Midwest, London’s East End, snowy Russia and the rocky Himalayas and I became determined to possess this seemingly wide and wonderful world in my own way. On local family holidays I collected bags of sands from beaches in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Natal’s South Coast. In 2001 I asked my sister to bring me back a piece of Mauritius from her holiday and thus my sand-collecting journey went international. Soon after I brought back my own sand from a trip across India with my family. As I got older my hobby became more than just owning a piece of the world, it became an anchor to not only capture my own travel memories but also the history of the land itself.
However unless you’re on a beach holiday sand-collecting is no easy feat; the process usually involves scraping gravel, surreptitiously clawing parks and poking fingers into gardens whilst avoiding eye contact with passers by. The contents of these exertions are then deposited into hotel shampoo bottles, airsickness bags and even Purity bottles.
In fact in expensive cities where land value is high it’s almost downright impossible. When my sister visited Japan I begged her to bring some sand and all she managed to find were a few stones, (most likely from someone’s zen garden). In Singapore I struggled so much that I finally relented and dug up soil from the hotel foyer’s pot plant while the concierge was busy. And if I thought expensive cities were tough, conflict zones where the very land is being contested is even more difficult. Regretting not having brought back sand from Palestine when I visited in 1993 I tried to coax a friend going there to bring some back for me. Surprisingly, Israeli security takes their land grabbing very seriously and they confiscated it from his bag. In Lahore at the tense Wagha border between India and Pakistan I managed to dig up a handful of sand and take it across into India and for a while in my pocket, the two lands were finally united.
Kashmir, the contested Himalayan region was another story. I worked up the courage (and my father’s permission) to teach at a school in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir some 7000 feet above sea level in a small village that could only be reached by horse. For four months with a group of volunteers I taught the loveliest kids so hungry for knowledge that some of them walked for kilometres uphill every morning just to learn. On rainy days the mountain turned into a muddy clay that the villagers used to bake into bricks and it was this mud that lined the path that passed through fields filled with corn and apples to the school. This was the earth I chose to bring back from Kashmir; the clay from the path to the school in the mountains and not the earth stained with blood from the valley just below.
In the U.S.A I arrived during the end of a particularly cold winter and like the weather outside I was undergoing my own inner change as I recovered from heartache. I lived with a group of writers in rural upstate New York in a Colonial Dutch house overlooking the Catskills. The place radiated old American charm with sprawling hills, red tractors, gable-end homes and neighbours that waved. A five-kilometre walk dubbed The Loop became my daily habit in reflection and as the season changed so too did the landscape; icy ponds melted, magnolias bloomed and sparrows began to sing. As Spring arrived I too felt myself emerge from the cold and at the end of my last walk I dug up the earth from that path that kept me going that winter’s end.
In China I lived for 6 months in a majestic hotel from 1906 lining Shanghai’s Bund as part of a residency with Swatch Watch. My studio overlooked Nanjing East, the main shopping street in China and one of the busiest in the world. From the ceiling I hung dried roses and my writing desk was filled with plants and flowers. I hardly ventured out because of the crowds and when I did try to collect sand from outside I suspected its integrity had been compromised with dirt and pollution from the bustling city. Exasperated, in my last week I finally emptied a pot plant on my desk and while it may have been mostly potting soil, in retrospect I can’t imagine any place better than from my studio’s writing desk.
Bali, Maldives, Phuket and Penang, all beach towns were no problem. And in Morocco I managed a handful of dust from the outskirts of the Volubilis Ruins. In Saudi Arabia, having heard stories of sands that wept for their return to the holy lands I ensured mine was only from the coastal city of Jeddah. The rest in my collection from Switzerland, South Korea, United Arab Emirates and Turkey were a mix of gifts and moments I can’t recall anymore.
There were places I actually forgot; in Canada and England utterly depressed over some private matter I forgot to collect any sand at all. In Spain I was too taken by the unexpected delight of finding myself in the middle of Cordoba’s Patios Festival (where the entire city celebrates Spring by inviting visitors to admire their blossoming patios) to remember anything else.

These bottles of sand serve as a reminder to keep dreaming. As a teenager in the library even imagining that I might go out into the world this way seemed impossible; I was (and still am) a girl from a small and often conservative community in Durban. The experience has been both rewarding and frustrating. My bottled sand reminds me that dreams can become a reality and that big things can happen to small people. When Dido was singing about sand in her shoes, I think what she was really talking about was dreams in bottles and how we should never stop pursuing them.

(Originally published in the Sunday Times, Lifestyle magazine, 13 November 2016)
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