Driving the conversation

The oft-dreaded family road trip is a potential cauldron of conflict but it usually turns out to be fit for the best of memories.

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Every family has its rituals, and ours is the summer road trip. It is seldom undertaken willingly by all of the participants; at least one of us must be strong-armed into coming. The undertaking is always fraught with complications, as any endeavour must be that brings together five people with differing agendas and forces them to act in concert. What time to set out in the morning (does it have to be in the morning?), how often to stop, where to eat, what to do when we get there - the sources of conflict are seemingly endless.

But in spite of all this, at least once every summer, my parents, siblings and I will pile into a car and start driving. Sometimes these journeys are sub-trips of more extended holidays abroad, and sometimes they involve mere weekend visits to whatever lies some hundred kilometres away from our own doorstep. We have driven through an astonishing array of landscapes sitting in the limited dimensions of a car, watching forests, prairies, mountains and deserts pass by through the windows. Sometimes these expeditions have a theme. Most recently, my family spent a week meandering through the American north-east, visiting university campuses for the benefit of my younger brother, an aspiring student.

Yet the real reason we keep taking these trips has very little to do with where we go or what we see along the way. Very simply, it is our way of spending time with one another. When the five of us are confined to what is essentially a very small space, and there is nothing to do but talk to one another, the conversation takes us places that we would otherwise seldom visit. Old family histories are dredged up and future plans are laid. Favourite jokes are rehashed and new anecdotes are exchanged. Concerns are raised and then smoothed over. We do all of these things under the guise of travelling somewhere new.

Last year, we drove to Liwa Oasis in pursuit of Moreeb Dune, said to be the tallest dune in the UAE. Not to discourage anyone from the attempt - far from it - but once we were in the actual vicinity of the dune, the route became exceedingly bizarre. On the lonely desert road, signs appeared at random intervals to point us in completely contradictory directions - first this way, then that, then back again to where it seemed we had just passed.

Near the end, I was laughing so hard that it had become difficult to drive. "What if," someone said from the back, "there is no Moreeb Dune? What if it's just a figment of our imaginations?" And even if it had been, I would still say it was one of the best road trips we ever took.