For expats like my family, life here can be quite isolated. Connections with extended family are often lost, and one of the first things you notice when you arrive is the age demographics, skewed towards the younger generation. The majority of expatriate teenagers here don't have the luxury of living with, or near, their grandparents, and as a result don't get a chance to interact with them as often as they would living in their home countries.
While I would visit mine every summer, and would be visited by them every winter, I only realised how much I appreciated them last year, when my grandmother succumbed to a courageously fought battle with leukaemia. Coming to terms with the loss of a loved one is never easy, but there are quite a few valuable lessons to be learnt. Although they may not figure in our lives on a day-to-day basis (given the restrictions of distance), our grandparents can teach us so much, having experienced life to the fullest and discovered what really matters.
I'd have to admit that my grandmother was the most dynamic person I'd ever met, and age simply made her all the more keen to cram as many things as she could into a day. She sported a cherry-red bob, which, clashing shockingly with her Indian skin tone, I'm not sure was entirely age-appropriate, but it was an integral part of the Grandma I knew and loved.
One of my "tween" phases involved concocting all sorts of face packs, using recipes I downloaded from the internet. I wasn't willing to test any of them on myself, for fear of swallowing any fruit - something I was convinced would be extremely dangerous to my well-being. I found a willing volunteer, though, in Grandma. She would sit down with her feet in a tub of hot water I'd provided, and a bottle of perfume under her nose (aromatherapy - I was quite the wannabe spa-owner) while I slathered mashed papaya and melted Lindor chocolate on her face and neck. If I was feeling particularly brave, I would charge her for the "luxury package", adding to my already bulging pocket-money wallet.
One of the advantages of travelling to India was that I wasn't required to spend a paisa: any whims were generously catered for by Grandma, whether they were traditional knick-knacks in ramshackle markets or steaming hot titbits to eat from roadside stalls. The main problem at the end of the summer usually tended to be stuffing all the enormous presents into protesting suitcases.
My grandparents nursed no desires to spend their golden years peacefully at home, but rather travelled to a different corner of the globe at every given chance. In London, Grandma's joy knew no bounds when she discovered Primark ("a pair of shoes for a pound!"). Somehow, I wasn't surprised when she turned up the next winter with a massive bag filled with gorgeous Primark shorts, tops and Converse-style shoes for me. A canary yellow dress with glittery Nefertiti heads on it, from Egypt, was slightly less to my taste, but we converted it into an eye-catching tapestry for my wall.
She firmly believed that it didn't matter how many co-curriculars I got myself involved in; an essential skill that was imperative for me to acquire was to know how to make the perfect cup of tea. The very first cup of tea I made and presented to her and Grandpa, complete with artistically arranged sprigs of basil on the saucer, received a shower of praise. "You now have everything it takes to succeed in the world," was the verdict.
Grandparents sometimes seem to have a zest for life and a childlike wonder that the harried younger generation does not possess - or at least not in such large measure. Each one of Grandma's trips to Dubai was punctuated with detours to all sorts of high-end stores, Wafi being her favourite mall, as well as to dodgy cafés, where we would happily sample shawarmas and felafels until we felt physically sick. She made friends with all the salesmen at Baskin Robbins in the Mall of the Emirates, and got a free taste of every single flavour of ice-cream. I usually manage about four free tastes before I start receiving icy frowns.
An evening at Global Village resulted in her dragging me off to a terrifying ride. As we shot up and down, she squealed in excitement, waved her arms about, and smiled, flashing dazzling pearly whites, for photos. I mostly screamed.
It wasn't just in Global Village where she liked posing for photos; she insisted on having a full photoshoot wherever we went, whether it was pushing up the Burj Al Arab, Leaning Tower of Pisa-style, in front of the Dubai museum (behind the canons) or among the ruins of the giant Chinese ship in Ibn Battuta mall. I mostly served up embarrassed smiles and "Is it over?"s through gritted teeth as I performed toothy grimaces, and posed reluctantly with her at her behest.
I only wish I had done it more willingly and shared her enthusiasm for life while she was with us.
The writer is a 15-year-old student in Dubai.