Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Being an Alien

That fateful day.  They look so innocent, don't they?
I'm the one in the groovy, mint-green pants.

{This is part of my 31 Days of Surprise Endings.} 

People often ask me what it was like to grow up as an American in Bangladesh.  And it's kind of hard to explain, except to say that I always felt like an alien.  In Bangladesh, I never fully fit in with my Brngali friends because of my white skin.  In America, when we visited, everyone could just tell that we were a little -- or sometimes a lot -- different.

It wasn't just that we were living in a different country from our families, it was really like living in another time period. We didn't have reliable electricity, television and cable were non-existent, and we used phones only when we were visiting the main offices of my parents' work.  And they didn't work well at all.

One time, my sister and I were in a Sunday School together in America during one of our short trips back, and when my parents came to pick us up, the teacher asked if we were hard of hearing.

"No," my parents answered, puzzled.  "Why do you ask?"  

Apparently, we had found toy phones to play with and our whole conversation had gone something like, "HELLO!  CAN YOU HEAR ME?"


Mom and Dad had to teach us to be "street smart" in two different cultures.   It was more than the difference in technology.  We had learned not to drink tap water EVER unless you wanted a parasitic zoo living in your intestines, and we knew about cobras and rabid dogs.  

But there was one danger that concerned Mom terribly, no matter where we were: drugs.  I suppose this was the result of being a good Baptist girl who came of age in the late sixties.  As soon as she thought I would understand, she educated us about all the different kinds of drugs – that some looked like dried grass while others were powders and still others were little pills that someone might tell us we should take because they would make us feel wonderful.  

“They’ll tell you all kinds of lies,” she said, warning us about the cunning people who would surely try to get us to take drugs.  “They’ll tell you that if you just take this little pill or smoke that pipe you’ll feel so much better.  They might even try to give you candy or treats.”  Jenny and I stared at her in terror at the mere thought.  

“But,” she said smiling in a way that relaxed us again, “all you have to say is ‘No thank you'.”  She continued, “You don’t have to give an explanation or anything, just keep saying, ‘No thank you.’  Got it?”  We nodded vigorously.  Then Mom had us role-play these scenarios several times until she felt confident we understood.  

It was a good thing Mom took the time to teach us.  Because, sure enough, the summer I turned five – five! – when we were in California for my aunt Alisan’s wedding, someone tried to give us drugs.  What I never expected, though, was that the pushers would be my very own Aunt Janelle and Uncle Steve.

We were riding with them from Yosemite to Bakersfield.  They gave my cousins Dramamine because they tended to get carsick.  But Jenny and I didn't know what Dramamine was.  In Bangladesh, carsickness was a way of life.  The sides of many buses were decorated with lunches of their passengers. 

After distributing the pills to my cousins, who knew the drill and complied happily, my aunt held out the little bottle of pills to Jenny and I and told us to take one.  It wasn’t even a question of whether we wanted it or not, but more of a polite, but direct, order.  I looked at Jenny in horror, and she looked at me.  Then we shook our heads with equal politeness, just as we had been taught, and said, "No, thank you."

Uncle Steve (understandably, I can say now) didn't want vomit in his brand new Volvo station wagon, so he kept pressing the issue.  "Just take this little pill.  It won't hurt a bit, I promise.  It's easy to swallow, and it will make you feel really good," he said with his most charming smile.  

I had to bite my teeth together hard to keep my jaw from falling to the ground.  This was exactly what Mom had said they would say!  And "they" were my own relatives!

Jenny and I plastered smiles on our faces, just the way we had when we were role-playing this scenario with Mom.  "No thanks," I said, speaking for the both of us.  "We're fine."

"You know," Aunt Janelle said in the sweetest, most cunning voice, "we're going to stop at Foster's Freeze when we get to Bakersfield.  If you take this medicine, you can get a milkshake."

I couldn't believe the words I was hearing.  All of this was playing out precisely the way Mom had said it would.  I slipped my hand into Jenny's, and she squeezed it tightly, assuring me of her solidarity.  Thank God she was here with me.  My eyes flooded momentarily as I was overcome with gratitude for my big sister, but I blinked back the tears.

We made it to Bakersfield without any vomit, and my aunt and uncle were so relieved they bought us milkshakes anyway.  When we met up with my parents, I ran gratefully to the arms of my mother.  As I clung to her, I whispered in her ear, "Mom!  They tried to get us to use drugs!  But we did what you said.  We just told them, ‘No thank you!’”

So... I might not have had green skin, or a weird-shaped large head, or stepped out of a flying saucer, but the world was a tricky place.   And I always had a lot of figuring out to do.  

Saturday, October 11, 2014

In the Letting Go {Part 4}

{This is Part 4 of a story I've been telling in my 31 Days of Surprise Endings.  You can (and probably should) read Part 1, 2, and 3 first. ;-)}

The last fifty feet of the hill were so steep that we had to step onto the bushes protruding from the dirt while holding tightly to bushes above us, then hoist our legs up to the next bush.  We didn't dare look down, only up and only with a quickly dying hope.  
Fifteen feet from the top, Kristin started crying.  
"I can't do this!" she said.  "I'm so scared!"
"Just keep moving!" the dads chorused.  "Don't look down, we're almost there!"  The adults were staggered among us now, strategically located to catch us if we slipped.  I realized I was crying, too, because as I checked my feet to make sure they were on a sturdy rock or bush, I could see how steep the incline was and just how far I could fall.  And below me were Mom and Aunt Janelle, helping the youngest two along.  What if something awful happened?
We were too far up to safely turn around.  Our only hope was to continue until we were at the top and could hopefully find another way down.  I wiped the sweat out of my eye with a dirty hand, then tried to blink away the stinging dust that clouded my vision.  My arms and legs were screaming at me to stop, but I didn't dare.  One by one, we made it to the top, to a flat green area where once again trees shaded the ground.  And as each of us arrived, we used our last bits of strength to help the others.  Then once we were all on the plateau we collapsed on our backs, shaking and gasping for breath.
It didn't take but half an instant to realize that somehow, unbelievingly, there was not a single flake of snow.  At our altitude on the other side of the valley, it was practically a polar landscape, but somehow, where we were, the ground was green, rocky, and entirely snow-free.  
As we slowly caught our breaths and our gasping quieted, there was a cacophony of new noises – the opening of the water bottles and thirsty gulps taken, the crinkling little bags of chips and the gratitude with which the snacks were received, the dads making little sounds in their throats that seemed to indicate bemusement.  How was it possible?  How could there not be one single flake of snow for all our efforts?  When finally they could form actual words again, the dads said in unison, "You know...probably... We could go just a little further and --"
Equally in unison, the rest of us answered, "NO!"  
We found our way back down the hills through a forest, where the pine needles were so thick and the ground so steep that we could slide down almost like skiing.  It wasn't long till we came to a stream where we refilled the water bottles and dropped in the treatment tablets, and just as it was time enough for us to drink the water, we came to an open meadow.  It didn't seem possible that we had any energy left in us, but as we reached the grass, we all began to run and laugh.  
When we finally collapsed on the grass to share the water, there was a palpable sense of exuberance.  Maybe the altitude had gotten to us and our oxygen-deprived brains were muddled beyond reason.  
I think, though, we had learned something important that day.  We are taught from a very young age that if you give something your best effort, it will inevitably succeed.  And that's good, and mostly true, for sure.  But equally important as you grow, I think, is the lesson that you can throw all your sweat and tears and the last of your strength at something and it still doesn't work, for one reason or another.  When you realize that but can still look at it and say, "Oh well, I tried my very hardest," there is an amazing sense of freedom -- even accomplishment.  Because sometimes, it's in the letting go of what wasn't so great after all that we find what's best.
A few weeks later, I learned this again, but in a different way.  We were staying at a lovely guesthouse in the rainy mountain town of Mussorie.  It as late afternoon, and we had been out playing all day when my parents called us into the living room.  Their faces were tense and grim.  My dad held a paper in his hand that said we had to leave Bangladesh -- the only real home I'd ever known, the country of my birth -- by July 31.  It was the end of June.  Our vacation was cut short so we could go home to pack.
I was a tiny bit excited, but mostly terrified.  For several nights, I woke up in a panicked sweat. My dad stayed up with me, talking to me about trust in the letting go.  His voice was always calm and patient, his arms always warm and comforting.  And what I I didn't know yet was that the trajectory of my life, which felt like it was ricocheting haphazardly out of my control, was actually on a path that would lead me to happiness I couldn't imagine right then.

I just had to let go.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

In the Letting Go {Part 3}

{This is part of my 31 Days of Surprise Endings, and the 3rd part of a story I've been telling.  Please read the Part 1 here and Part 2 here}

Yaqoob's Lodge became significantly less interesting when we couldn't play with the puppies any more.  But fortunately we had that one, even more exciting distraction: the snow.  On top of the high, green hills that surrounded the valley, we could see great white patches of it.  My cousins and sisters and I spent our first days there, dreaming about what we would do when we hiked to the snow, how we would have a roaring snowball fight and build a snow man and make snow angels and so on.  Coming from Egypt and Bangladesh, where snow was just something beautiful in books, pictures, and our memories, we couldn't wait.
It didn't look like it would be a long hike to get there, but nevertheless, our dads insisted that we wait to get acclimated.  For several days, we did short, "practice hikes".  None of us dared complain because we didn't want our fathers to have the faintest notion that we were not up to hiking all the way to the snow.
Finally Dad and Uncle Steve decided we were ready.  We were a cheery crowd, the ten of us, as we started out from the center of town.  Our snow discussions continued as we climbed through thick forests of pine that dappled the noonday sunlight – who would be on whose team for the snowball fight, what we would use for the snow man, and so on.  The trees began to thin out as we continued up and the incline of the hills increased.  When we stopped for water, mopping the sweat from our faces, we stared across the valley.  Was it just our imaginations, or was the snow on the other side already lower than us?
"Don't worry, kids," Uncle Steve said, "That means it won't be much further now."  
"That's right," Dad chimed in, "Probably just over the crest right here."
We pushed on over the crest, expecting to see a winter wonderland.  We looked around with dismay.  No snow.   
"Can't be much further," Dad said again, in a tone that held just a hint of surprise.  His shirt was soaked with sweat.  He charged up the hill, and believing him that we were just a short distance from our current vision of paradise, we followed, side-stepping up the steep incline to keep from falling.
"I'm getting tired," my little sister Jackie said.
Jenny, Kristin, Ryan and I simultaneously shot her looks of scathing disdain.  She was going to get the whole expedition shut down if she kept saying that kind of thing.
"All right, water break," Uncle Steve declared.  Once again, we stared across the valley.  It was certain now; on that side, the snow was definitely below us.  
None of us wanted to admit it, but by now, far beneath our sweat and aching muscles in the deepest, darkest parts of our souls, we were all sensing a subtle twinge, the faintest hint of defeat.  
"Well, that's gotta mean we're almost there."  Uncle Steve's words broke through the silence that now shrouded our little troop.  Dad nodded in agreement, and he seemed surer than ever.
"That's right," he said.  "It's gonna be right at the top of this hill."
We looked up where he had indicated.  The next hundred feet or so above us were extremely steep, rocky dirt dotted with sparse and scraggly shrubs.  The dads seemed so certain, though, and after all, we had come so far already, it would have been a tragedy to turn back at this point.  No one made a noise; we just shrugged and sighed and got back to our feet, each of us engaged in a silent struggle to hold onto our dream.  Snow!  Snow.  Snow… snow… It seemed like such an immature and childish fantasy now, and yet we wanted it so bad.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

In the Letting Go {Part 2}

{This is part 2 of a story I began yesterday in my 31 Days of Surprise Endings} 
Our mothers, who worried about silly things like veterinarians and vaccinations, did not like the way we played with the puppies, letting them writhe on us and lick us and scratch our arms.  They mentioned silly things like "worms" and "rabies."  The issue of worms did concern me slightly, but rabies did not, for by then I had seen plenty of rabid dogs and knew the gaunt, hunched bodies with the ribs that showed through their skin like treacherous canyons, the haggard expressions and glazed eyes and foaming mouths.  It was true that the mother of the litter was not kind.  She never approached us as we played with her puppies and regarded us with a malicious gleam in her eye as she stood about ten feet away.  But still, I was almost ten.  That meant I knew enough to be smart about things, and I knew Mom, as she was always saying to me, worried too much.
Then one night, I needed to use the bathroom.  I tiptoed over the sleeping bodies of my sisters and cousins and quietly let myself out the door.  A lone light bulb was attached precariously to the wall above the stairs, and I saw that the puppies’ mother and another dog I recognized as being a regular visitor were stretched across the steps.  It didn't occur to me to be afraid.  I descended the stairs, and as I approached, the dogs lumbered off toward the garden.  
At this point, I had a choice to make: should I wake up my parents and use their bathroom, or should I use the outhouse?  I knew it wouldn't make them overly happy, but I went with waking up my parents.  There was no light in the outhouse, and though the moon was out and shining brightly, it wasn't enough to convince me that nothing sinister would be lurking in the corners.
My dad stumbled to the door in his boxers, half awake after my knock.  
"I need to use the bathroom," I told him as he sleepily scratched his back with one hand.
"Right.  Yeah.  Come on in."  
I bid hello to my mother, did my business, said goodnight to both parents, and left.  When I returned to the stairs I noticed that the two large dogs had returned to their stations.  They lifted their heads as I approached.
"Hi," I said, in my most friendly tone.  As I set my foot on the bottom step, though, the dogs' mouths curled above their teeth, and I heard a vicious growl.
"It's okay, you know me," I said in my most pacifying tone, placing a foot on the second step.  The dogs stood, their growls becoming louder, and the hair on their backs stood completely upright.  
It was at this point that I began to believe I should not continue up the stairs.  
Mom had always said you should never run from a dog.  But in that split second when I realized the dogs had started down the stairs towards me, and I decided to disobey her.  I pivoted and ran as fast as I could.
I had no idea how far away the dogs were, but since we had started with only a few feet between us, and since their snarls and barks seemed to be right in my ears, I guessed they were at my heels.  
Although I didn't realize it until later, when it occurred to me that I was nearly hoarse, I had started screaming as soon as I started running, and it probably saved my life.  The door to my parents' room flew open, and Dad stood at the doorway, a superhero in boxer shorts.  His expression of puzzlement way quickly gave way to one of grave concern.  I raced past him and he slammed the door behind me, pushing it against the open jaws of the two dogs. 
For several moments, I clung to my father, crying, gasping, shaking, and coughing.  I knew I was safe then, but I couldn’t stop shaking.
We didn't play with the puppies after that.  Yaqoob and his wife assured us that the dogs weren’t rabid, they'd had shots, and the attack was brought on because Yaqoob had been sick to his stomach that night and his trips to the outhouse had unsettled the animals.  
But it dawned in me then that Mom didn't really worry too much.  She was actually wise -- very wise -- and doing her best to impart her wisdom.  And she prayed a whole lot -- which, as surprising as it may have been, I actually needed.  You might even say I needed it desperately.  
And also, as it turned out, there was nothing more beautiful than my dad, hair wildly askew and standing in his boxer shorts, his arms open for me, when the scariest thing in the world just then was right at my heels.

Monday, October 6, 2014

In the Letting Go {Part 1}

{This post is the first in a new story I'm sharing in my 31 Days of Surprise Endings.  Stay tuned for more! :-)}

If there were three people I didn't see enough of growing up, it was my cousins Ryan, Kristin, and Eric.  They were the kids of my mom's identical twin sister Janelle and her husband Steve.  Ryan was two months younger than me (rumor has it there was a race to conceive, and my parents won), then Kristin just 18 months younger, and then Eric was a few months younger than my little sister Jackie.  It was hard to connect with them, as we were pretty far-flung across the world.  We lived in Bangladesh, and they lived in Alaska.  Then they moved to California, then England, then Egypt.

Somehow we always managed to squeeze in time together, though, often in surprising locations.  The summer I turned ten, our two families made an epic plan to travel around India together for a whole month.  My family traveled to India at least once a year, usually twice.  We had been all over it, often to the same places, so this was our stomping ground. But we had never gone to the famously beautiful mountain region of Kashmir, our first stop with my cousins.  We were excited for many reasons, but there was one thing motivating us like nothing else: the prospect of seeing and playing in snow.  

We flew from Delhi to Chandagar, then the ten of us piled into two hired taxis, and we drove all day.  Stopping for the night, we all crammed happily into one hotel room -- parents on the beds, kids on the floor like sardines in a can -- before heading on the next day.  As the sun climbed higher and higher, we continued along twisty roads with breath-taking vistas of lush green valleys and rocky hillsides, and beautiful streams, all the while praying that Kristin wouldn't get car sick since she had been known to throw up even on five-minute drives.  Finally, we made it to our first destination: Pahalgam. 

Pahalgam lies in a long green valley with tall hills on either side.  A river courses through the valley, gently tumbling over rocks and boulders here and there, but overall gentle and clear.  There were lots of restaurants and hotels and shops downtown that catered to tourists, but we ended up at a place that was a good half-mile off the main road, in the country.  To get there, we had to cross the river on a footbridge, then follow a meandering path that curved along the water's edge a short distance and started up the hill before arriving at our destination, the hotel of Dad and Uncle Steve’s choice: Yaqoob's Lodge.

Putting it mildly, Yaqoob's Lodge was basic.  It was run, as the name implied, by a man named Yaqoob, who wore kurtas over baggy pants and had a long, scraggly beard.  He appeared to be no older than thirty, and he was married to a slender, blonde New Zealander.  There were only three or four other guests there during our stay, and they all appeared to be of the hippy, ganja-smoking, questing-for-life variety.  One of them stayed in a tent in the garden.  He wore a pink t-shirt with a huge yin-yang on it the entire time we were there.

The main building was two levels, and the outside made of long planks of wood nailed together half-heartedly.  Upstairs rooms were connected by a rickety breezeway that had low railing running alongside it.  We cousins shared one of these.  It was a long room with a bare window at the end through which the morning sunlight shone uninhibited.  There were only two beds, each covered by a thick comforter, but there was plenty of floor space and mats and more comforters.  Jenny, Jackie, Ryan, and Eric slept on the mats, while Kristin and I happily claimed the beds.  Aunt Janelle and Uncle Steve stayed next door.

My parents' room was downstairs at the far end of the building, and they had the luxury of an attached bathroom.  But there was also a small outhouse with two toilets separated by a thin wall.  Bathing took place by dipping cold water out of buckets and pouring it onto our bodies, so quickly decided that wasn't necessary.

What Yaqoob's Lodge lacked in luxury, it made up for in its tranquil, hippy-trippy ambience.  Breakfasts, included in the modest price for accommodations, were communal in one of the warm, sunny rooms downstairs.  Every morning there, we sat on floor pillows around low tables and ate cherries by the bowlful.  

And there was something – actually, some things – that Yaqoob's Lodge had that set it apart from every other hotel or lodge in the Pahalgam valley: puppies.  The resident dog, whose breed was a blend of Very Large and Generally Unfriendly, had given birth to a litter of six wriggling, completely adorable puppies.  Six children… six puppies.  It was like it was meant to be.

At least that's how we saw it.
{To be continued...}

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Shangri-La {Part 3}

{This is Part 3 of a story in my 31 Days challenge.  Please read Part 1 and Part 2 first.}

Finally, it was time for us to leave for Rawalpindi.  We waited for the bus near the apricot orchards while Dad settled our bill.  He had just joined us when another American strolled up.  Dad could talk to anyone who would listen, and since we hadn't really seen many other foreigners in Hunza this man was of particular interest.  It turned out he was a United Nations worker assigned to the area.

"Don't mind my asking," he said to Dad, then lowered his voice, "but what the hell are you doing here?"

"I wanted to see Hunza!" Dad replied in a tone that indicated it should be obvious since Hunza was on everyone's dream destination list, just after Paris.  "It's supposed to be Shangri-La!"   The man stared at him, puzzled, trying to decide if Dad was joking or if he was just completely out of his mind.  "You know, the novel Lost Horizon…?” Dad’s voice was losing some of its gusto. “Shangri-La?  Paradise on earth?" 
After a long moment of disbelief, the man looked at Dad sharply with one hand on his hip and the other jabbing towards the ground with every other syllable, said, “India and Pakistan are on the brink of war right now, and if that happens, this is going to be in the middle a war zone!  I guess if you call that paradise…”

Dad pondered the man's information, scratching his beard with his hand.  The bus bound for Gilgit came rumbling, shaking, squeaking, and at last, sighing to a stop in front of us just at that moment, and he sprang to action, grabbing our luggage.  “Well.  Good thing we're leaving then!”

Rawalpindi was dramatically different from the landscape we had just left.  While Hunza was mostly dry, brown, and very rocky, Rawalpindi was flat and lush, with tree-lined streets that provided cool shade as we walked.  I was tired and weak after several days of being undernourished and sick to my stomach. 

We found our hotel.  As Dad let us into the room, I gasped.  It was not actually one room, but three – a luxurious suite!  There was air conditioning!  Carpet on the floor!  Beautiful furniture including a plush sofa with an intricately carved frame that had (did I dare believe it?) a television in front of it!  Even our home didn’t have a television! 

“Does this work?” I asked in a quiet, awe-filled voice as I ran my fingers over the smooth screen.

“It’s supposed to,” Dad replied, appropriately hedging his words since, after all, we were still in a Third World country.

I moved from one room to the next like someone in a trance, making attempts at words yet not being able to articulate a single one.  The bathroom was so clean, with shiny white tiles, and a large, electric water heater and a bathtub!  A bathtub!  If I got into it just then, as I so badly wanted to, it would be days before my parents could get me back out.  But my dad was calling me from the living room.  He had turned on the television and was saying, “The Olympics are starting today.”

And suddenly, right in front of us, Los Angeles appeared!  There were crowds of people cheering, waving, and somebody running, carrying a torch.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – any of it – and I certainly could not have been happier.  Air conditioning, television with the Olympics, no less, and a clean bathtub with a water heater?  This was Paradise, this was my Shangri-La. 

There were just three words for such a perfect moment as this, so I closed my eyes, like my mother always did, and after I’d breathed out the happiest sigh, I said them: “Praise the Lord!”

Friday, October 3, 2014

Shangri-La {Part 2}

{This is Part 2 of this story.  If you haven't yet, please read Part 1 here. All these posts are in my 31 Days of Surprise Endings}

Mom spent half of the ride with her eyes wide and trained on the driver, mentally willing him to caution, and the other half with her eyes were squeezed tightly shut, and I knew from the subtle movements of her lips that she was praying.  

Dad, though, was the complete opposite, a portrait of elation.  Every twist of the infinitely twisty road offered him another opportunity to exclaim profusely at the beautiful scenery.  There were rugged cliffs looming high above us on one side of the road and plummeting on the other side towards a rocky river.  The further we went, the more we could see of the mountains, breathtaking in their height and capped in snow. 

Mom’s prayer and telepathy combination worked because finally, after an impossibly long day, we reached our destination.  She stood on shaky legs in the late afternoon sunlight and closed her eyes again, filling her lungs with the cold mountain air.  As she exhaled, she said, "Praise the Lord." 

Dad looked supremely happy as he took in the view.  The village hugged the craggy side of a mountain; below us was the river valley.  Some of the tallest mountains in the world pushed up towards the sky around us, many of them reaching elevations of more than twenty thousand feet. 

"Kids!" Dad said, the excitement in his voice barely controlled.  "Look! This is – or could be anyway –“ he almost choked with emotion before he whispered dramatically, "Shangri-La."

"Shangri-La?"  Jenny repeated, in that dubious tone eight-year-olds are so good at.  "What's that?" 

"Yeah, you know, this glorious place, this…" his voice broke as he was overcome with emotion and he nodded, thrusting his arms forward to indicate the scenery.  "It's Paradise."

I had my doubts.  Serious doubts.  For one thing, it seemed like Paradise would have a nicer place to stay. 

Our “hotel” was in a single-story bungalow with a low roof of corrugated tin painted kelly green, and the whitewashed walls of our room were completely unadorned.  While maybe not quite ugly, it was sparse, unattractive and most definitely uncomfortable.  It was the kind of room found in monasteries for those who believe their horrible sins must be atoned through discomfort.  A single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling cast feeble light around the room at night, and during the day, a little bit of sunlight came through a tiny window.  This place was slightly better than some of Dad's typical accommodations in that the bathroom was attached, and it had running water, but the water that came from the faucets had just melted off the nearby glaciers and was therefore barely warmer than freezing and heavily flecked with silt.  All the beds were the size of narrow army cots, with mattresses made from straw that poked through the rough, thin sheets and made me itch all night.

One semi-pleasantry was that every meal was served on the porch, with its fantastic views of the valley and towering mountains.  Lunchtime, when the sun was at its zenith, was tolerably warm, but in the chilly mornings and evenings, this al fresco dining became less appealing.  And even though I didn't eat much during the five days we spent in Hunza, I still managed to come down with some kind of intestinal problem.  

We spent our days there traveling around the valley – hiking for miles along steep, rocky trails to where we could view the Batura glacier, visiting the old forts, walking through the quaint village with its orchards of apricot trees.  Every day, we heard artillery practice from the Pakistani army, and sometimes, there were loud explosions that shook the ground and made me jump.  I fearfully asked Dad what was happening, and he explained that we were near an army base, and that it was all just part of their daily routine of training. 

Finally, it was time for us to leave for Rawalpindi.  

{To be continued tomorrow...}

Thursday, October 2, 2014

31 Days of Surprise Endings

Welcome to 31 Days of Surprise Endings!

There have been so many times I've thought I was smart enough to know what was going to happen next.  I had a really fantastic plan.  I'd practiced.  I knew that person so well.  I was prepared.  But then, something happened.  Everything went wrong, or embarrassing, or... a million times better than I could ever have imagined.

Many of these are travel tales (because that's a huge part of my life), but there are also plenty of stories of day-to-day motherhood, marriage, and other relationships.  In everything I will tell here, though,  I think I learned something valuable: the true worth of a mother's prayers, the kindness of strangers in an unkind world, the hilarious humility that comes with communicating in a foreign language, what grace is, and so much more.

I'm so excited to share these experiences with you and hope that what I discovered can maybe help and encourage you with the surprises, the unexpected twists and turns, in your life as well.  Or at the very least, give you something to laugh at (me).

Please follow along, and let's talk about surprises!  I think this will be fun!

"Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us." -- Boris Pasternak

{Today is Day 1.}
Day 2: Shangri-La {Part 1}
Day 3: Shangri-La {Part 2}
Day 4: Shangri-La {Part 3}
Day 5: Boo.  I didn't post.  Sundays, it turns out, are absolutely crazy.
Day 6: In the Letting Go {Part 1}
Day 7: In the Letting Go {Part 2}
Day 8: In the Letting Go {Part 3}
Day 9:  Nada
Day 10:  Nada
Day 11:  In the Letting Go {Part 4}
Day 12:
Day 13:
Day 14:
Day 15:
Day 16:
Day 17:
Day 19:
Day 20:
Day 21:
Day 22:
Day 23:
Day 24:
Day 25:
Day 26:
Day 27:
Day 28:
Day 29:
Day 30:
Day 31:

Shangri-La {Part 1}

{This is part of my 31 Days writing challenge}

This story must begin with my dad, a man born with incurably itchy feet.  In college, he hopped freight trains all around California and Oregon.  In grad school, he spent a year of study, newly-married to my mom, in Beirut, Lebanon.  That year, they also visited Iran, Syria, Israel, and Turkey, then traveled through Europe to Switzerland, Germany and England on their way home.  I was born in Bangladesh, where my parents were working for a non-government organization.  I took my first plane trip at ten days old, and my first international travel was within four months.  Traveling was just what we did, like it or not.

It's not that my parents had a particularly generous salary, though, that would easily accommodate travel.  But Dad knew how to stretch a dollar like it was taffy.  For as long as I can remember, I was well-informed of the fact that he had spent $26 for the hotel room the night he married Mom.  That was the high water mark for what he would spend on a single night for many years to come.  

He planned and strategized each trip for months.  Most of his best ideas came to him in the bathroom, and consequently, the back of the toilet was littered with airline schedules and train itineraries and guide books like Lonely Planet and Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Budget.  Dad's shoestrings might have been worn and frayed, but they did the job.  There was nowhere Dad didn't want to go, no road he didn't want to explore, no door he didn't want to peek behind, no mountain he didn't want to climb.

And now, my mom, the balance to my dad.  Dad was tall and fair, while Mom was dark and petite.  Mom was game for some adventure most of the time, but she had her limits.  She was the only one, I think, who could reign Dad in, with a particular look and a sigh, or a certain tone in her voice that he had learned early in their marriage meant, “Dead End.  Proceed no further.” 

My mom had -- and still has -- probably the strongest and most active prayer life of anyone I personally know.  She couldn’t have done what she did otherwise.  She took the verse about praying constantly very, very literally.  When things get hairy, you can bet that Mom's eyes are closed for at least a few moments.  Sometimes her jaw is clenched, sometimes her lips are barely moving, but when things turn out okay, she closes her eyes again, inhales deeply and says with the most radiant smile, "Praise The Lord!" 

And so it was with these two at the helm that my older sister Jenny and I set off for a summer adventure to Pakistan (and Nepal, but that's a story for another day).  Dad had somehow got it in his mind that we must to see Hunza, a small town in the dry and rocky mountains sometimes called "the foothills of the Himalayas." This meant flying from Dhaka to Karachi, Karachi to Rawalpindi (and there, a thirteen hour wait in the airport), then Rawalpindi (with a truly hair-raising take-off in which we just cleared the mountains instead of crashing into them) to Gilgit.  Upon landing miraculously safe in Gilgit, Mom sat with a few more minutes with her eyes closed as they had been for the entire flight, then smiled and said loud enough for all do us to hear, "Praise The Lord!"

Unfortunately, our journey wasn’t over when we landed in Gilgit.  We still had a three-hour ride in a bus to the river valley of Hunza, which was some eight thousand feet above sea level.  In Bangladesh, we almost never rode buses, thanks to their nasty tendency to crash.  With people crammed into every centimeter of the interior – not to mention all those that hung onto the outside or rode on the roofs – the carnage was always horrific. All the roads in Bangladesh are fairly straight and flat, and the road to Hunza was the extreme opposite.  If such crashes could occur on "safe" roads, I found no reason to trust this part of Dad's travel plans. 

Mom spent half of the ride with her eyes wide and trained on the driver, mentally willing him to caution, and the other half with her eyes were squeezed tightly shut, and I knew from the subtle movements of her lips that she was praying.  

{To be continued...}