Thursday, October 2, 2014

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...}

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