Dubai Diaries: Car-less in the city

Dubai - How was I to travel to work, to the grocery store, to my friends’ homes, without my beloved vehicle?

by Anjana Sankar

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Published: Sat 26 Jun 2021, 8:45 AM

Last updated: Wed 30 Jun 2021, 2:15 PM

“A week? With no car?” My mouth was agape. The AC in my car had been hissing barely tepid air for some time, and now the mechanic was telling me it would take a week to fix it. A week with no car in Dubai? We inhabit a city largely built after the invention of the combustion engine and primarily designed to effectively get its residents from place to place in the comfort and safety of their own automobiles.

How was I to travel to work, to the grocery store, to my friends’ homes, without my beloved vehicle? The answer lay not at my feet, but over my head. I remember when the Dubai Metro was first announced in 2004, and how impossible it seemed that any of the city’s car-crazy denizens would choose to ride it.

But I woke up early on the morning of September 10, 2009 in order to cover the first metro train to glide effortlessly across the city, and have been impressed by its expansion ever since.

My use of the Metro over the years has been sporadic, so I was a bit wary when my auto-less state forced me back into the connected convoy of cars. The thought of being on an enforced timetable and enclosed with strangers was off putting, to say the least. But I had forgotten all of the beauty of riding in a train. There’s a reason that authors and poets sing the glories of the rails, and that so many movies take place in a train cabin. As I glided effortlessly and cheaply across Dubai this week, I thought about how much train travel is a symbol for our shared, communal lives.

We are all moving forward, but have separate journeys. Our lives intersect for a moment, sometimes meaningfully and sometimes accidentally. You see the full range of the human condition on the Dubai Metro: romantic encounters and breakups, pathos and humor, the boredom of the daily commuter and the excitement of the three-year-old obsessed with locomotives. Together we make two parallel journeys: the physical one along the tracks, and the spiritual one where we are bound together by our common path in that moment.

We are also blessed in Dubai with the safety of the Metro. Several years ago I boarded a train in Mumbai’s historic and crowded Victoria Station. Even though I was in the women’s section, I felt a man’s hand groping me from behind; I turned and glared at the aggressor, who quickly fled with the assumption that I would not follow. He was wrong. I ran after him, spun him around by the shoulder, and delivered one tight slap. In that space, nobody noticed, and nobody helped. How lucky we are that such incidents seem far removed as we sleekly slide above Sheikh Zayed Road.

Of all the journeys we take — on foot, by bicycle, in airplanes, and, yes, even via car — the train is unique. It’s the only mass transportation where the seats are designed so that we can all look at one another. It gives us a glimpse of life in miniature, and in short enough bursts that we do not tire of one another. You feel the pulse of a city differently in a train, well beyond the cars and malls, and come face-to-face with the people who make the city beat.

When my car was finally delivered to me at the end of the week, AC blasting, I greeted it with the comfort of familiarity. But I will not use it quite as much as I did before this enforced break; instead, I will continue seeking out the multiple journeys that the Metro delivers as well.

Anjana Sankar

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