Chocolate Cake © 2016 AnnMarie Rowland
I am home from my Big Adventure to the United Arab Emirates, and feeling overwhelmed. I am still dazed and disoriented by the experience itself, and the prospect of writing about the events of those two weeks seems far too big. But I’ll try. I expect to be writing about it for some time.
When I accepted the invitation to present workshops at the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival near Dubai, several of my friends and a family member or two expressed some concern. National Media has done a pretty thorough job of instilling fear in the US population of everything Middle-Eastern. “Just be careful.” I heard those words of advice a lot before I left for two weeks on the other side of the world.
We do tend to fear what we don’t know, and my destination was more distant than I had ever gone before. I understood the good intentions, even though I felt none of the apprehension. My only point of hesitation was the long flight since it had been 20 years or more since I’d boarded a plane. But since I was going by myself, and since there was a long list of “unknowns” involved with the trip, I agreed to have a code word; one that would seem meaningless to most people, but which, if I used it, would mean “I’m in serious trouble. Send help!” to my family.
I decided on “Chocolate cake”. I think having this in place was a comfort to a few. Honestly. Once I took off from Detroit, I forgot all about it. Until the last night of the trip.
I’ll tell you straight-up that there was not a single moment while in UAE that I felt even slightly uneasy. I was met by kind, warm-hearted, generous people with wide smiles, twinkling eyes, and an almost-embarrassing desire to be helpful and “of service”. I walked down some narrow alleys; rode in cars alone with men I didn’t know, who didn’t speak much English; found my way through a couple of the world’s largest airports, unassisted; talked to strangers; ate foods I couldn’t identify, and walked away from some very persuasive merchants. But on the final night, the night I rode at what felt like breakneck speed over the dunes of the desert in an SUV and rode a camel… the night I watched the sun sink into the sand and the moon rise into a star-speckled sky (the same moon that rises over my home in Michigan; the same stars)…then I remembered about the chocolate cake.
The feast in the desert that night included all my new favorites; chicken biryani, kabobs of beef, shawarma, and chicken, steamed fresh vegetables, Arabic rice, local dates, Naan bread and hummus. There was also the usual array of desserts; baklava, loukoumades, and halwa. But on that night, there was one more dessert; one I had not seen on any buffet lines, seen on any menus, heard any mention of, or even thought of at all. Chocolate cake. Not just any old chocolate cake, either. This was five thin layers of cake with chocolate mousse between and rich, dark ganache over the top. This was the chocolate cake of chocolate cakes; huge, and self-serve. I cut a slab and felt it gently lob onto my plate. I refilled my cup with dark Turkish coffee before returning with my treasures to my place at a low table, on my cushion.
My fork dipped into the softness and I lifted the first bite of that cake to my lips just a breath behind the rich aroma that hit my nose first. It was, without exaggeration, the best cake I’ve ever eaten. Moist, but not heavy. Rich, but not too sweet. It was while I ate a second slice that realization struck. The code word. The cry in the desert. The signal for help. Chocolate cake had arrived, unbidden. Unneeded.
A cool breeze drifted over me and a deep sense of peace pooled at my feet. Here, I thought, was something that felt like God and the Universe whispering in my ear, “There is nothing to fear here. Help has been here every day. Help was a ride to the festival and again to the hotel as often as you needed. Help was abundant, delicious food set before you. Help is the lavish room you’ve enjoyed for 12 nights. Help is the wealth of new friends you have made that will stay with you for a lifetime. Help arrived on the faces of children who were eager to learn. Help has been the sea rolling beneath the sun, terns reeling overhead, and the moon streaming through your window at night. Help is this night in the desert. Taste it. Take big bites.”
I did, and it all tasted like chocolate cake.