Monday, December 2, 2013

Banker in the Sun

Dear Reader,

Unfortunately, The Traveling Bedouin will be undergoing maintenance for a while as I redesign the site. In the meantime, please feel free to follow my traveling adventures at: Banker in the Sun. Looking forward to seeing you there, and don't forget to sign up for my newsletter for lots of stories and travel tips!!

Thanks again,

Rashad :)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

When Kings Fall

I began writing When Kings Fall in November of 2011 and am hoping to have the final draft completed late this year. Based on a true story, When Kings Fall retells the misfortunes of a physician and his wife in political exile from Syria and their nomadic trek for a place to call home. It is set during the 1924 Arabian war, when the powerful armies of the Sultan of Najd and the King of Hejaz collided head-on, forcing the physician to make a difficult choice of allegiance; one which could tear him away from the woman he loves.

The prologue casts the physician as Hamza. I hope you enjoy the reading and wish you the very best in your travels and writing endeavors:

                                        Prologue--The Day before the War (1924)

      The great dune rose several hundred feet and leaned over like a wave about to crash on the Naf┼źd desert. A beastly sun exhaled, its fierce temper scorching the landscape and causing it to blur. Hamza wiped his forehead and dismounted. He adjusted his glasses before carefully walking atop the dune’s crest to the sultan.
      The sultan cupped his hand over his brows and surveyed the western Tuwaiq escarpment, which disappeared into the gritty haze of the southern horizon. He lowered his hand. “It was eight months ago that we awaited them over there, doctor,” he said, pointing at the mouth of the escarpment. “There was not a sound, not even cries from the vultures. Finally, when the sun dipped at the desert’s edge, darkness came to life—”
      He paused and looked morosely at Hamza.
      “—a thousand tears of slaughter rained down on us, arrows bending the whims of fate and stealing all life in their path. There were screams everywhere, cries of our fallen. The enemy advanced upon us like marionettes in a dance of death. And we—we thought we were invincible, cursed by this arrogance ten decades in our blood. But like a crocodile stalking us in the rivers of our ignorance, the men of Medina struck, and devoured us.” The sultan’s eyes glimmered sadly. “Many children lost their fathers that day.”
      Together, in silence, Hamza and the sultan paid homage to the landscape of broken arrows that sprawled out before them, remnants of the attack months earlier. At length, the sultan said, “Come, we do not have much time.” The two mounted and looked at the desolation one last time. Hamza tasted the salt at the edge of his lips, wiped more sweat from his face. The sultan’s stallion neighed at his master’s command, and the pair galloped off into the blistering heat, leaving behind them a cloud of sand and dust.

      That night, under a full Arabian moon, Hamza was unable to fall sleep; the anticipation of tomorrow’s battle pounded in his heart like an unsung legend impatiently awaiting its birth. He’d had no idea what to expect when he accepted the post as the sultan’s first physician. His body was not meant for war; its delicate nature and fine hands had been groomed for the intricacies of medicine and the healing arts. Never had he imagined ending up folded in a fetal position, fending off a desert chill with the meager flesh that covered his bones. The cold of night edged its way into their tent, kissing his neck and sending chills down his spine. He pulled the blanket around him. He missed Yasmina. And he missed the sound of the crickets from his backyard in Damascus, the ones that would accompany his sleep into the wee hours of dawn. It wasn’t often that Hamza thought about the home from which he’d been exiled—instead harboring resentment for it—but tonight, in this strangling darkness, there was no other place he wished to be.
       But his fatigue eventually overwhelmed him. Soon, all that was left was a faint picture of the woman who’d left him.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Travel Bug: You Owe it to You

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Not long ago I took a horse ride into the desert outside of Cairo. Not an hour had passed before a violent sandstorm showed, causing me to seek shelter in a nearby pyramid. There I was, standing in a structure which had survived the test of time, its limestone walls older than cities, countries. When I looked down at the smooth floor, I imagined sandaled feet striding down the narrow passageways; spectral figures passing by as they chatted and laughed on a warm day of old.

Intentionally or not, the words "Egypt" or "Middle Eastern" nowadays are often coined the same way as one would talk about a problem, or a headache. This probably goes to explain the lessened interest in Egyptology, Arabian romanticism, or Sufi mysticism. Gone are the storied tales of Aladdin, Pharaohs, and a Thousand and One Arabian Nights, replaced instead by the grind of news networks pumping out stories about terrorism and uprisings in a manner befitting George Orwell's 1984. Mixed messages and poorly researched news abound, considering the claim to Cleopatra's Egyptian roots are false. Cleopatra was Hellenic, and despite her lineage's refusal to speak anything but Greek, she was one of the few who took up Egyptian.

Unlike many Middle Eastern countries which have only recently modernized into tourism hubs, Egypt's history is dotted by Western influence dating back from the Roman Empire to the British Protectorate of the early 1900s. It is this mixed influence of East and West which tourists will appreciate, and which will help them more easily assimilate the experience. Cairo harbors both the old and the new. Narrow streets leading to classical markets known as soukhs are as prevalent as wide, modern highways which give to modern buildings. But it's true face lies not only in its diversity, but in the jewel of its past--monuments which we've all come to recognize in pictures and movies--for wherever you stay in Cairo, remnants of the great Pharaohs are never too far, nor is the work of mathematicians and astronomers accomplished well beyond their years.

It was during the moment when I sought shelter in the pyramid that it hit me--the realization of how deeply history has become marred by technology--how diluted culture has become as the internet draws us to a more lazy way of life. There comes a time when we owe it to ourselves to trek back into ancient pasts beginning with the places least familiar to us. We owe it to the explorer's heart which beats in our chest, which advanced mankind, and to lose ourselves in the era of bejeweled scarabs, hieroglyphs, and incredible achievements.

And if you ever think the notion is too trivial, I'll ask only that you look at the back of a dollar bill.

Egypt and its mysteries are much closer to you than you imagine.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Damascus: East of Somewhere, West of Nowhere

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Disclaimer: the following post touches on politics of the region. We try to restrict as much as possible posts with political views as this is not the intent of this travel blog. The views are not in any way supported by myself or the interviewer. The interview answers are preserved here for the sake of giving you, the reader, the ability to witness a local merchant's take on the situation.

Lightning crackled and flashed as the torrential fury poured down onto the streets of Damascus. Here in this pall of solitude my hosts and I sat, lights dim, watching the furious rains rage outside. We gazed as the wretchedness let up momentarily which, shortly thereafter, abruptly followed with another outpour that hurled at the top of its lungs. Incessant rain. Brutal rain. What once stood desiccated now lay drenched and bloated as the downpour severely flooded the narrow, dusty roads that wound like mazes into the city’s dark unknowns.

    The rain steadily let up and my host, a kind woman wearing a white headscarf raised her cup of chai tea and nodded at me. I obliged with a smile and lifted my cup; we took a sip. 

    ‘These sanctions,’ she said a moment later, looking out coldly at the hazy landscape outside her veranda doors. ‘They are killing us, we are the ones suffering. These others at the UN are putting sanctions on the people of Syria; the price of bread has gone up, the price of tomatoes has gone up, everything costs five times more.’
    ‘Did they ask for UN permission before invading Iraq?’ said Abu Bakr, her husband, sitting next to her, ‘It’s a media circus, they went into Iraq without UN approval, and why?’ He rubbed his index and thumb together. ‘Because of oil. We have no oil. Maybe just a little, but not like Iraq or Libya.’
    ‘Our young can go out and have fun,’  said Sharifa. ‘We have many modern cafes, lounges, even bars and clubs. What do you think will happen if things change? What do you think? Fundamentalists will come. Look at Iraq and Afghanistan, fundamentalists everywhere. If they come here, they will close down all these places for our young. And if they can’t close them down, what will they do? Bomb them?’
    ‘Our freedom and lifestyle will not be the same,’ said Abu Bakr. ‘We are fighting for our lifestyles too.’
    ‘And look at the poor innocents getting caught in the cross-fire,’ said Sharifa. ‘Even the French knew how complicated Syria was back in my parent’s days. Have they so quickly forgotten?’

    Sharifa was referring to the Sykes-Picot period of the early nineteen hundreds which handed rule of Syria over to France under the French Mandate, and would have seen the country carved into five different States based on its numerous religious and ethnic groups.

    After a few more exchanges I looked at my watch, I had a meeting to catch downtown, so I thanked the husband and wife and bid them goodbye, then stepped out into the musky street. The sweet scent of flowers from a nearby park pervaded the air and soon the clouds scattered, allowing the baking sun to return and exhale upon the city a heat which would quickly dry any last vestige of humidity. I looked around. The hillock upon which my host’s apartment building stood gave me an unfettered view of an aged scenery.

    The city of Damascus was of a yellowish-gray which drew its color from the rocky landscape.  The plain, rectangular houses and buildings – mostly affairs of necessity rather than luxury – intertwined to form the city’s network of streets and alleys which sprawled out in confused clusters. Car horns mounted on decrepit cars constantly blared in the distance, breaking the dole and injecting it with the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life; but don’t get me wrong, Damascus was a dichotomy of wealth and poverty, possessing both in clear abundance, and you would readily see expensive German makes as you would the local bang-ups which dangerously careened through the narrow byways, ignoring traffic rules meant for anyone but them.  The roads within the city looked rundown in some parts, but relatively well-kept in the upper class areas and near the various tourist sites, such as the Al Hamidiyya market. Unlike other cities of Arabia I visited, where transportation consisted of rag-tag microbuses that had seen better days, Damascus’s public transit was a welcome relief: the old microbuses were there, but not without their modern, air-conditioned counterparts too.

     Let me remind you, such is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world, a true pandemonium to the senses; beautiful, yet weathered;  elderly, yet youthful; seven cities, one built on top of another – six civilizations beneath us come and gone.  I needn’t tell you how many prophets of all religions trekked its streets; and looking at the buildings, you’d think many had endured the test of time only for the privilege to personally tell you their story. The roofs in the poorer areas looked rather peculiar, messy if you will, with numerous satellites dishes and antennas which look dated jutting up like a field of round, rusted flowers.

     I took a deep breath, gone was the smell of the park as I inhaled the city’s perfume of petrol and dust. I walked down the street towards the park, in the middle of which towered a water reservoir; a big, white ball of metal with stains running down its stalk which, if anything, resembled a large mushroom with a growth of moss that threatened to swallow the entire base. I walked into the small corner store facing the park. Six customers congregated next to the register in no specific order. I called out for a pack of cigarettes. The cashier nodded at me, handed me the pack, and cashed me out first. That’s the way it is. This isn’t a first-come first-served culture, you need to impose yourself or you will forever be waiting at the back of lines.

    Outside, I pulled out a cigarette as a military truck rumbled by. I watched it disappear down the road’s bend.
    ‘Light?’ said a voice behind me.
    I turned around. A young soldier in full fatigues carrying a semi-automatic approached me. He looked plump and smiled widely as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver zippo, then flicked it open.
    I leaned closer to the flame, lit up, and thanked him.
    You see, that’s the problem with this place.
    We hear all these things on the news, but the truth often hangs on a coat-hanger, in the hidden closet, of a remote house, with no registered owner. The people of Damascus do hear about the horrors going on out there, but from this vantage point it all seems to be news seeping in from a foreign country, one very different than their own. Perhaps it’s the work of the media, or perhaps it’s confusion densely layered in from the top down.
Worse yet, like twins conjoined at birth, the surgery to separate sides can hurt both. And it’s a shame, having come this far in history, that a glorious people cannot peacefully share this archaeological Eden.
    I looked the guard over, he was waving at another army truck passing by.
    I shook my head as I took a drag.
    Syria isn’t easy. Proof lay in the six cities beneath me. She’s given the world too much to be suffering like this.

    I do hope she finds her peace, I really do.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Travel Bug: Boom-Boom


That's the sound of napalm dropping on our past.

We think long and hard about it when we're staring up at a revolving ceiling fan in this room in the middle of a desert, just you and I, laying down, arms open and hands behind our heads. Wondering how the heck our past effervesced so quickly, you'd have thought years would have taken longer to dissolve. As if.

But you remember her, don't you? Yeah, you do. That elusive little thing we met. I think she liked you more, but I don't care. For a brief moment, she was in our lives. Just the three of us. She was our smile and our joy. Shit. She was our life.

Then, boom!

She disappeared. You know why? We had to go back to that shit-hole called home. We wanted to stay out there, in the middle of God knows where, with these strange faces and their stranger tongues. It wasn't so much the beaches or the scenery that surrounded us. Pfff, you can watch that crap on TV.

Nah, it was the girl, it was the attitude. What d'you say? Yeah. Me neither. I don't remember what she looked like, her face was kind of hazy. But it wasn't her looks that did us in, was it? Honestly, I just loved having her around. She wasn't the jealous kind, either. She loved it when we talked to other backpackers like us. As long as she was around.

So, you and I, we went back home. As soon as we got there, we couldn't take it, we left. Curiously enough, don't ask me how, we ended up in this half-way house of a desert between the East and the West, staring at this fan above us. Laughing at our adventures. Laughing at all that we left behind. The lunacy of it all. No, you talked me into it.

But, seriously, don't you wonder if our friends talk about us anymore, if they miss us? Do you think they'll ever understand our obsession with that faceless girl? Do you think they know we're sitting in a desert under a baking sun while we wait for her call?

Do you?

Wait. I said, shut up. I think I hear her calling. Come on, get your lazy ass up.

The bombs are about to drop.

Soon we'll be gone.

For good, this time.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Last Breath of Christ

It’s been nearly a decade since I was on the plane, flying for endless hours between the cusp of space and the depth of the Pacific.  I said goodbye to my family on the phone from the terminal at San Francisco International and stepped directly onto the plane, destined for what I largely felt was the unknown.  I was headed to Shanghai, China’s largest city, a country which at that time was just on the verge of becoming known as it is today.  At that time in many Western minds it still carried poignant residues of a shrouded past, thought of as foreign, unpredictable, and a place that once entered, left you to the whims of communists.   Even the airline assistants had to get their managers before issuing me my ticket at the counter.  They told me they had never seen a one way ticket to China, and needed to make sure I would not be detained when I landed there.  Of course that delightfully soothed my already frayed nerves as to what I was about to do.  I had spent a year researching and planning, because once I left San Francisco I was on my own in a land I did not understand.  Never could say why I did it, but I had every inclination that a massive part of the world’s future lied in bed with an even greater part of its ancient past.  Whether I was right or wrong about that didn't matter, I was going simply because I had to go.

And off I went, with a suit case, back pack, international calling card, a picture of a Chinese man that would meet me at the airport, and the phone number of a young Australian named Cristo.  Cristo was a pen pal I made online while researching about Fudan University, where I would be a student for one year.  Little did I know at the time that I would actually learn from that experience for a life time.  From the first email I sent Cristo it was instant chemistry and friendship.  He had been living in Shanghai for about three months doing some modeling and acting there.   When he gave me his cell number I was not aware of how crucial this would be for us both after I arrived.

I landed in Pudong airport and shortly after began my search for the man in the picture I held in my hands.  This quest lasted at the very least an hour, considering when I looked around I thought, “Chinese all look the same”! Of course that changed for me over time.  The Chinese man, with the English name Jason, eventually found me.  I believe seeing the same white guy with an incredibly lost look on his face, searching endlessly, gave me away.  He spoke very little English, which was more than the Chinese I spoke. I remember him later telling me when we could both communicate better, “I had a hard time finding you and wasn’t sure, because white people all look the same”! He also was just going by a picture and of course hearing him say that was incredibly amusing to me.  We drove for about an hour through one of the most massive cities I had ever seen.  Skyscrapers went on for miles, and then more miles, and the streets were swarmed with people everywhere, and I mean everywhere.  They were standing by food stalls, riding on bicycles in and out of the different lanes, crouched by sidewalks on their heels in typical Chinese resting fashion, moving in and out of traffic, in and out of stores. It was bustling, chaotic, and alive at every turn.  And on the roads you could see everything and anything that someone could put a wheel on.  Meanwhile, we were in a black sedan that took me all the way to the international dormitory, located in a district well outside of the city center.

I had arrived early because I had the profoundly bright idea of getting there prior to classes, so I could get situated.  So when I woke up fourteen hours later starving, in a practically empty 24 story building, I thought now what?  Driven by the most basic of human needs I trekked down to the lobby to ask someone where I could eat, because no doubt they spoke English at the international dormitory.  I would say this was the beginning of a really long drawn out, oh shit, moment.  I began speaking to the staff downstairs that I was hungry and needed to know where I could find something to eat.  However, I was greeted with extremely strange looks, followed by a tonal noise and a new look, as if I certainly understood what they were saying.  I could have made as much sense from the static of a disrupted television station.   But necessity truly is the mother of invention, and by God I needed something to eat and drink, and the water out of the tap was not an option.  I could say at that moment I became a master of Charades, and used every part of my body and any object at my disposal until I was understood. I was given very distinct directions by a single finger point.  I translated it as, the foods out there somewhere, good luck!  When I walked outside, at least at the time in my particular location, every restaurant I encountered would have caused a health inspector’s pen to bleed of ink.  Everyone spoke only Chinese and every menu was written in Chinese characters, naturally.  Pin the tail on the donkey would have been as good a method as any for choosing a meal. 

Speaking of donkeys, at that moment I realized I was probably the only thing nearby that resembled anything like a jackass. So I headed back to my room to call home and give an update, then reach out to Jason, or my pen pal Cristo.  Only problem was my phone didn’t work.  All back up plans built upon the accessibility of modern infrastructure laid useless before me, as I stared blankly at the Chinese instructions on the red phone in my hand.  I remember thinking, man I wish this red phone could reach the president, because I’m feeling a potential state of emergency coming on.  Every combination dialed and tried was answered with a female cryptic message, all in Chinese.  Whispering sweet nothings to me in Klingon could have had the same effect.  Later I would learn that in order to use the phone you had to buy a calling card on the street, in order to buy a calling card on the street you had to speak Chinese, then by default, to be able to follow the instructions on the calling card you had to read Chinese.  So to mine and my family’s dismay, it would be well over a week before they would know that I was in China, and still with a pulse.

I took a minute and thought about my next step.  I could just go into one of those restaurants and eat something, anything, but what if I got sick?  Then what if I was rushed to the nearest local hospital and given who knows what, or stuck with a dirty needle, etc.  My imagination ran rampant.  Then I grabbed Cristo’s number, a handful of change, and headed out in search of a pay phone.  Each time I left the dormitory I could only go so far as to make sure I could retrace my steps.  If I got lost it wasn’t like I could just ask someone, hey where’s the international dormitory?  I couldn’t even hop into a cab and tell the driver to rush me to the airport.  So I carefully ventured out among a sea of Chinese, foreign streets, strange smells, and awkward stares, the kind of stares you would expect if a thousand pound gorilla was trotting down the middle of the intersection.  I dodged bicycles, mopeds, and herds of others until I finally found a pay phone.  My relief at the pay phone quickly faded when I saw there was no hole to insert your change, and only a slot for a calling card. It was such a modern styled pay phone compared to what may have been found lining a street, or gas station in America.  However, China was always like that, full of extremes and opposites fortified and coexisting in the same place, at times it would infatuate me and other times infuriate me. Just walking you might pass an elaborate modern high rise full of luxury apartments and next to it a half crumbling communist era building, both with residents. Maybe even pass a construction site with one man wearing a sports coat and hard hat crushing rocks with a sledge hammer, and right next to him another guy in pajamas gathering the stones.  I can’t even count the times I thought, now that is such a clever idea, and in the same moment think, but that simply doesn’t make sense.  Unfortunately for me this pay phone made perfect sense, it just didn’t take cents.  So off I went always with the same result.  I would feel occasional surges of panic, followed by pointlessly pointed questions of, why did you do this?  After several hours had passed and cumulative miles walked, I sat down on a wall across from my dormitory.  I looked around and it became ever more real to me that I was in a foreign land, couldn’t communicate, had no idea where I was, and couldn’t call anyone. 

During this meditative review of how desperate my situation was, two Chinese women with three children approached.  They were staring as they walked toward me, talking and laughing.  Two of the children hid behind the women’s legs, while the third came right at me with absolute curiosity and fascination.  The two women sat beside me for awhile and began talking to me in Chinese, and I returned the fruitless favor in English.  At times they laughed hysterically at me, and it was in that moment that I saw my situation in a completely different light.  It actually was kind of funny! So I just sat there and started laughing with them.  We communicated however we could and they began removing exotic fruit from their bags to give me.  I asked if I should peel them or not, and they started peeling the fruit and gave me a bottle of water.  This would be one of my first and most memorable meals in China. There I was, sitting on a strange wall on the other side of the world, laughing, eating, and drinking with the kindness and curiosity of two strangers and their children.

It was after this that I decided to check out the park behind me, which ended up being another university’s campus, and went for a leisurely stroll. During that walk I finally stumbled across a pay phone that would gladly accept my Chinese change.  That is when I had one of those small but forever changing epiphanies, the kind that cause you to never quite see the world in the same way again.  I reached into my pocket, pulled out the change, and my first thought was, which one is a quarter?  Then it dawned on me, perhaps they don’t even have the concept of a quarter, and realized I was only thinking through the lens of the American system I was raised.  They may structure it totally different, even their concept of money may be different, perhaps the way they view the world itself is entirely different.  But after such grandeur philosophical thought, I came right back to the problem at hand, what the hell do I put in this phone to make it work?  Just as the question passed my mind a Chinese family walked by, and I proceeded to step in front of them.  There was clear shock on their faces at a white man suddenly in front of them speaking English.  I just held out my hand full of change, Cristo’s number, and pointed to the pay phone.  A middle age man just said, “Ahhh!”, then grabbed the change, the phone number, and made a call that for me could have rang the heavens.  On the other end a young man answered with an Aussie accent, “Hello this is Cristo”! From that point on I would hear that voice often.  Cristo would become my first and one of my best friends in China.

Unquestionably Cristo was one of the most critical people in my life there and at times the closest.  We talked ideas, dreams, nonsense, went to clubs, threw parties, chilled at the French restaurant, attended the same classes, you name it.  But one conversation in particular that we had, at the French restaurant we attended so regularly, was about my dream of going to Tibet.  I told him about when I was a kid and saw something on television about Tibet.  It fascinated me in an instant, from the ceremonial dress to the very noises of their instruments. In my eyes back then I was witnessing life on another planet.  It felt so far removed from where I was, like a place I would never have the possibility to see.  But Tibet always hung in my mind and I always hoped for the chance.  Cristo looked at me after that story and said, “You’ll make it Bryan!”, and I did! For those who might not know, getting from Shanghai to Lhasa is not exactly like catching a train to Beijing.  So even though I was in China, it didn’t mean Tibet was going to be possible for me. However, eventually I left Shanghai to head through Western China to Tibet, without the slightest consideration that it would be the last time I would ever see my friend Cristo.  I would receive a call one afternoon sitting at a restaurant on a hillside in Dali.  In that call a mutual friend then explained to me that Cristo, while sleeping next to his girlfriend, had shuttered and took one last deep breath.  The last text I would send Cristo was in the middle of the place I had seen on television as a child, “Cristo, I made it to Tibet. I’ll miss you and I wish you the best”.  And I was right, because nearly a decade has passed and I still miss my friend.

I can’t say I know exactly what it was about China, but it provided an alternate reality.  Time seemed to warp and relationships were compressed and ran deeper quicker.  I think it may have had something to do with the intensity of the environment and its effect on foreigners in our situation.  You need something familiar to hold onto, and someone to rely on at times to emotionally survive, and maybe even physically survive.   So the different stages you go through with love, friendships, or other relationships back home are expedited, and you grow deeply connected or apart relatively quickly.   I believe time is experienced slower because of the daily intensity that becomes the norm. It would take years in your own environment to encounter the absolute abundance of new and novel stimulation you can get, in just one year in China.  There are so many new ideas, smells, relationships, etc., on and on, all the time.  People are different, your environment is different, and sometimes in some ways you’re different. When I returned from China it felt like I had been gone for years.  I also felt like the same person, but I wasn’t and it took several years to see that emerge.  How I thought, felt, reacted, and in what I pursued and connected with in my life had all been altered.  It still changes and impacts the course of my life today and probably always will.

Cristo was a significant part of that experience for me and therefore was a significant part of me.  He signified the beginning of my life in China and he defined its end.   His death was deeply emotional for me.  It was the end of an experience that would never leave my life the same.  For some reason when he died, my life in China began its close.  I had to mourn not just the wonderful person he was, but also the memorable experience that he was such a huge part of, and begin saying goodbye to so much.  Recently I came across an old photo of my class in China.  There was Cristo with his bandana on, throwing the hang loose signal, which is the same sign for the number six in Chinese.  Every time we would say liu (six) we’d have to say it like a stoned surfer and throw up our thumb and pinky.  I miss him so often and it stuns me how much I still feel like I should be able to pick up the phone and call him. 

It’s funny that Cristo’s name should mean Christ.  Because in China, in many ways, he was my savior and before my time there ended, in my mind he had died on the cross. I miss you so much Cristo and I am forever grateful.

Cristo, I made it to Tibet. I’ll miss you and I wish you the best. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Switzerland: Even Paradise Breaks a Child

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The piano.
That is what I remember most about my childhood. I was only ten. About to be sent to boarding school in Gstaad, Switzerland. A lady in the lobby of the Palace Hotel in Gstaad played a beautiful song on the piano.

And in the solitude of a broken hour that night, I found myself humming this sweet sonata, this music of the hotel which accompanied me to sleep before I enrolled for school the next day. I imagined mother playing these notes with her musical fingers. Like the lady in the hotel, I dreamed of her swaying from side to side, and singing with that same light, honey voice.

The spectral notes would drift through our imaginary house, carried by a grand piano which I pictured standing in father’s smoking room, just like in the movies. The harmony was savagely beautiful, heightened by the hour of midnight, the hour of passion. And then father would walk in and give her a kiss. She would stop playing, and stand up. Tenderly, mother reached for his hand, and they would go to the bedroom like people who loved one another did.

But then a bomb exploded in my chest. An emotion so hurtful its pain came in degrees of color; blues, reds, and yellows. And I cried myself to sleep. I wished it all away, wishing to remember nothing the next day. Such is the life of children whose dreams are broken by parents' divorce.

It was Gstaad which mothered me. And it's people who fathered me. Gstaad is a splendid painting drawn by the hand of God, beset by large titans: glacial mountains that eclipsed all in a show of majestic might, where beauty’s onslaught conquered man’s technology. In the midst of this resplendent grandeur lay this small village, which had the charm of a gingerbread town with its crystal-glazed streets and snow-caked rooftops. A place which many a visitor would call Paradise.

The air was smooth, cold and crisp–not harsh, as many would imagine, but rather subdued, every lungful an aroma of peace, a refreshing taste of heaven. The streets were seldom crowded, and tourists travelled from all four corners of the world to share in its delightful charm and fabulous skiing. They could be found strolling along the streets, passing under the dim, ornamental streetlamps—father hugging daughter, husband and wife, all arm in arm, occasionally gasping excitedly as they rushed to one of the boutique windows upon finding an object of marvel.

Sitting on a park bench, eating a piece of candy, I would look down the street at the happy families and the small boutiques. The shops of Gstaad were old as centuries, their bucolic rooms harboring items of rarity or works of flair seldom found anywhere else. And I would watch. A schoolboy far from his parents. All along, the music of the piano played against the backdrop of this paradise.

But every once in a while, when the moon rose and the wolves of sleep circled, the music would stop. It would come to a standstill. It was followed by a sharp, cutting sadness as I remembered the families earlier that day. Memories of happy children and their parents which this paradise flung in my face.

And the quiet played its counter-melody, slowly encroaching upon me. Shunning me. Opening its great, big mouth and swallowing everything in my world.

I remember one thing from my youth, one thing which altered the course of my growth. One thing which I vividly remember to this day.

That even paradise breaks a child.