As the darkness falls upon the Baja California desert in northwest Mexico, the silhouettes of the cacti appear like the giant skeleton hands rising out of the sand. I set up my tent near a cactus and sit at the tent door. The sky is full of stars. I remember the childhood times when I used to count stars in the sky from the roof of our house before falling asleep. Today, I try to look for constellations and patterns in the sky that my dad used to point at for me. This is the same sky, but a different desert, and a couple of decades in between.
I was born in the Thal desert. Maybe, that explains my love for the deserts. There is something in the dry barren landscape which has always fascinated me. I grew up walking bare feet in the soft sand. As a kid, I used to play in the sand for hours—making sculptures, doing calligraphy and drawing, and practising scientific formulas freshly acquired from school. Most of the folklore love stories from Pakistan are based in the desert setting so I can sit on top of a sand dune anywhere in the world and imagine the tragic love story of Sassui Punnhun or Heer Ranjha taking place right there. Here, I can even vision my whole life story unfolding in front of me. I believe if you can take a moment to reflect, a desert is a theatre with an ability to playback your past and future events.
There is a soul in the sand which speaks to me. It is not a verbal connection but a spiritual one. It is a voice which counsels me and reminds me of my nothingness. Being in a desert, I feel a longing for the desert, as if the self which belongs to me wants to surrender its existence and become one with the desert. Cycling in the vast emptiness of a desert, I come to realise how big our planet really is and that there is enough room for everyone yet how foolish we go about waging wars against other countries on petty issues over borders.
I am completely absorbed by the desert when a shooting star on the sky pulls me back.
“When there is a big desert in my home, what am I doing in this desert on the other side of the planet?” I ponder. Maybe, only through separation, we can remember. I wouldn’t need to remember the Thal Desert had I not left Layyah.
Sitting in my tent and seeing the entire universe circling around the cactus tree, I ask myself, “is there any other place I want to be right now?”
As I think about the answer, I see the stars glowing even brighter now. I close my eyes and lie down inside the tent, afraid to open the eyes again lest the view of the sky trickle from my memory.