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Blog Posted in avatar   Chris Stewart's Blog

Exotic Splendor: Tales of lust and insanity and hands-on work in the broad, wild world.

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By Chris Stewart
Posted Dec 23, 2012 in Travel
PART TWO: Yemen, 1993-1994.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” ~ Mark Twain
My father has been a foreign service officer for, essentially, the entirety of his adult life. Thanks to his father, travel was in his blood. The same wanderlust that he would pass on to us was instilled in him as he grew up in Iran, Indonesia, and Norway. And so he raised us traveling. Our first home from which I have more than fragmentary memories was Sana'a.
Yemen was a wonderous place, and, as a five year old boy, I was an expert on experiencing wonder. Moreover, I had the best tour guide in the world, my father. If ever there were a person and place perfectly suited for one another, it was my father and Sana'a. The city was dusty, narrow, mud and wire, stones and stained glass. Yemen was an old and impoverished country, stooped from years of corruption and masses of street dwellers that added up to a problem too large for the government to consider addressing. But the culture is one of slow, lazy leisure. Days are paced at the speed of a rolling bead of sweat. The country relies as much on antiquated but savagely fair tribal customs as it does on modern amenities. It is the clash of old and new incarnate.
The men of Yemen chewed qat, a leaf that flourishes there and few other places. If chewed it acts like a mild form of cocaine, providing the chewer with a rush that comes on slow and blooms into a vaguely euphoric teeth-grinding speed kick. My father used to describe official meetings where he would be sitting with a group of Yemeni businessmen and diplomats, all sitting on the tough mafraj pillows that are the staple of Yemeni furniture, and all chewing qat. After a while, my father used to tell us, you realize that everyone is talking quickly, and more excitedly. Suddenly the room is full of noise and the mild afternoon chatter has broken off into friendly but heated debates and nobody can pinpoint exactly when the volume level spiked and nobody cares about it because their brains are flooded with dopamine.
Fridays after church we took off in our green Pajero and made for the mountains. We named our favorite peak "Crystal Mountain", because we never failed to find geodes on it- pale, spherical, and rather ugly rocks that were actually hollow and cracked open to reveal what looked like whole miniature-scale cities of glittering quartz crystal. We also found our family's first pet on Crystal Mountain- a chameleon that our dad named "Camelocha". In my father's study, which was also the reading room after sunset, camelocha made a lazy home, and could almost always be found resting on papa's tattered old white bible or, perhaps, the P.G. Wodehouse book that we were currently being read in the evenings. My father still has that bible, though its spine is held together by scotch tape and it's wrinkled from the sun and from passing hands so many times over the years. It's also constantly stuffed with pieces of paper, sticky notes, folded up newspaper and magazine articles, church bulletins, and hand-drawn doodles that my father had drawn in church- most of which show the same scene: a sunny valley walled with mountains where a single smiling elephant, Ellie, stands with a bow in her hair and flowers growing at her feet, staring right at whomever is holding the picture. My dad used to say that you knew you could trust someone whose bible was full of junk, because it meant they were using it.
On the outskirts of Sana'a we marveled at the ruins of the queen of Sheba's temple. It was there that I began to understand that the past really did flow into the future. "The past is not dead. It is not even past," my father told me, quoting Faulkner. I stared at the low walls of the once majestic palace.
I studied at home under my mother and father’s tutelage, and flirted with various schooling options. At four years old my mother (and I can still picture her excited smile as she planned this) enrolled me in what would end up being a very brief stint at an all-Arabic pre-school. My memories from this are vivid smells and tastes. There is a particular sparse, poor, colorful atmosphere in Arab grammar school classrooms that I can still recall with complete clarity. The teacher a tall, dark man in a plain white dish-dasha, which looking like nothing so much as a well-fitted, white graduation gown. The whitewashed concrete and mud walls were adorned with simple, bright, coloring-book quality images illustrating various school principles or bits of rote knowledge. The only class that I remember from my week-or-two time at Arabic school was the daily teachings on Islam, Islamic life, and the Qur’an, as explained in Sunday-school like terms and drawings. Beyond that I can picture myself sitting alone outside amidst rambling recess-ers and delightedly finding a small portion of Angel’s food cake in my lunchbox.
So once, for whatever reason, this plan was scrapped, it was back to doing refrigerator-magnet math with my mother using oversized yellow and blue number magnets. In spare time on warm Sana’a afternoons I would chat with Dilnessa, our Ethiopian gardener, or, if I was lucky, his teenage son Mickey whom he brought to work on occasion. My chipper conversations with him, my siblings, or other neighborhood kids stood in noisy contrast to my other favorite pastime: silent tea with Mahfouz. A somewhat aged type straight out of a Hemingway novel, Mahfouz had few teeth which he displayed without the slightest urging in warm smiles that were the only communication he and I could exchange. Mahfouz wore a large Jambia, the traditional Yemeni knife around his belt, and may have had a gun, though I can’t recall. He always struck me as an awfully jovial and frankly, meager last line of defense for our family home. Still, our walls, like the walls of most people who could afford to live in houses, was surrounded with a wall crested with two-to-three inch shards of broken glass. I used to walk around the houses on our street staring curiously at the wall-top glass bits which often were in pointed triangular shapes that made them look like shark’s teeth. Later in the afternoon these green and clear and brown glass teeth filtered rays of sunlight onto the dirt road and my shirt in shimmering earth-toned patterns. I played with the stray dogs and my siblings. I languished in the sun; a comfortable boy far beyond lost in thought.
One day as my father and I were hiking (probably a Friday when my father relished whisking any willing family members away for a hike after the morning’s church service) we sloped up a rocky mountain to see, in the distance, some caves. They were visible to the eye and thus large enough to excite us: what secrets might they hold? My father hikes with his eyes fixed firmly on his feet and returns, to this day, after every trip with a pocketful of rocks. He is a brilliantly read historian and an avid rock collector. Fossils and crystals abound in Yemen, undisturbed my modern hands, and my father was sent into an intensely focused and joyous state whenever we hiked. He would quietly speak to himself when examining a rock before passing it on to me without a word, squeezing my hand tight and kissing me on the head. When we hiked as a family we walked hand in hand in a long line. Us children fought for my dad's two hands. For the most part, he remained aloof, though later hikes in Ireland, England, and Scotland’s rockless fields saw him engage with us an extraordinary amount, spilling out story after story, song after song, and inventing games with us as we walked summer days away. In Yemen, he might recite a Kipling poem to himself or teach me an Arabic word while we hoofed around the rocky mountains.
And so when we came to the caves that day in 1994, my father squeezed my shoulder and pointed to them, grinning. We made haste, only to be shocked to see, as we grew closer, that the caves were occupied. A rugged, dish-dasha –clad Yemeni man was in each, manning what appeared to be anti-aircraft installments and wearing Klashnikov rifles.
“Mamnouah!” they shouted “Mamnouah!”. Forbidden, forbidden. My father immediately snapped into work mode, standing tall and calmly, clearly replying in Arabic that we would be on our way, raising a peaceful hand in the air.
Not too long after, the secret of these mountain fortifications was made clear as our family was awoken in the dead of night by the roar of a Scud missile flying over our house and the crackle of automatic weapons in the night air. My father scuttled us to the basement where we huddled, wrapped in blankets in the candlelit room (candlelight at least, we were used to, as Sana’a lost power with fair regularity and we spent a night or two every few weeks in a house lit only by tiny flickering flames) eating bread. I remember no fear or even anxiety. A civil war at this point in Yemen seemed like, for the most part, the logical conclusion to the country’s turbulent inner relations.
The only things on my mind were my stomach and my brother. I was, I would soon find out, coming down with the flu, and Will had spent the night at the house of another Embassy family. My concern for Will was allayed as soon as an Embassy escort retrieved him and reunited him with us. My mother, siblings and I were escorted to the airport where we and other U.S. Citizens were loaded into a C-130 Cargo plane that evacuated us as gunfire rippled through the air. This plane was not meant for passengers, and we passengers were not prepared for the plane. Strapped in to seats that ran along each opposing wall of the plane and facing the row of passengers on the other wall, our ride rattled and shook and most passengers vomitted, myself most prolifically as I was already sick. We had a layover in Europe. In the unnaturally bright airport light we children were huddled, given candy bars and shown ninja turtles cartoons on a small television. We draped the uncomfortable chairs in whatever positions we wanted and nobody told us to sit correctly. We chatted and napped, never for a moment thinking that this wasn't exactly how every five year old spent their weekends. And then we were in Connecticut, where a framed picture still sits on my grandma’s work desk showing me, Siobhan, Will, Hannah, and baby Emma smiling in the green Connecticut outdoors. A small inscription at the bottom says “Hope that Bill will be joining us soon!”
My recollection of the next month is a blur of what American meant to us in those days: Public parks and Cheerios and pizza and time with our beloved grandparents, my mother’s devastatingly smart and witty father and her fiery, sharp, sophisticated mother. Then it was back home, where Will and I found Little Boy heaven. Yemen, peaceful once again, was now littered with the remnants of war: all manner of abandoned weaponry. Excursions to the desert found Will and I crawling over the wreckage of abandoned tanks. Trips to familiar hiking spots saw us gleefully stocking up on discarded bullet casings, shrapnel bits, helmets, and even a mortar base that Will and I kept for years, keeping it in our closet and bringing it out to show off to friends. We didn’t know who had been fighting or what over. We didn’t know how many may have been killed or displaced. There was, even in wartime, a wall between us and the many dangers of Yemen, a combination of our naïve age, our privileged situation, and my parents simply never seeing any good coming from putting fear into our minds. For them, I’ve always assumed, it was never a question of “Should we raise kids here?” but more an exemplification of the old principle that a bee won’t sting you if you aren’t scared of it. For many new parents, burgeoning instinct for nurturing and protecting their little ones lead them to view the world as a place of endless danger: a carnival whose rides are made of broken glass and rusty nails. My parents cared and worried for us in daily matters, but their faith and lust for life led them to never worry over the big picture. Life and death were in Higher hands. We were raised in joy and confidence and shown a desire to avidly, respectfully, fascinatedly soak up everything that a country has to offer. We mirrored this attitude with verve, though as time and age have worn down on both Yemen and my parents, I wonder if those wonderful years could ever be repeated. The world and its occupants move in a strange syncopation, and I fear that the balance has shifted, at least in my beloved Yemen, to one with little room for levity, and few safe mountains left for a romantic, adventurous, introverted couple and their trailing chain of wide-eyed, laughing, sunburnt children.
An Accomplished Young Woman
“I'll tell you all my secrets but I'll lie about my past...” - Tom Waits
It was in Stockholm that I first heard of Maggie. A New York Times article had spotlighted her and I suddenly had an inbox full of e-mails with links to articles telling me about this extraordinary girl.
My family are travelers, big thinkers, men and women born in the wrong time. The haste, dedication, and plainspokenness of Maggie and her work appealed to my parents and siblings in the deepest parts of their hearts. Myself, I’ve always been the dark brown sheep of the family- I cause no truly shocking or sacrilegious derailments of normal life, but nonetheless, I’m the one that the others worry about when I’m not in direct line of sight. We discussed Maggie over dinner and my older sister Siobhan announced that she had written to Maggie asking if she could come volunteer at Kopila Valley, Maggie’s school in Nepal.
Like myself, Siobhan was back in the nest after having the unfortunate luck of graduating during the economic hell that gripped America at the end of the 2000’s. There just weren’t jobs, and there especially weren’t jobs in journalism, her field of interest. The next day she told me with a sigh that she’d gotten an e-mail stating that the school was at capacity and not accepting further volunteer applications. I’d figured this would be the case- The NYT article had rocketed Maggie into the spotlight and her story was bound to inspire a whole slew of imitators.
“You should just go there,” I said.
“Just show up- that’ll prove that you aren’t joking around. She won’t kick you off her doorstep.”
Siobhan shrugged. It was just one of a handful of plans that she had for her life. Our dad is a Foreign Service Officer and the six of us kids weren’t raised so much as we were traveled. From Kenyan safaris to the gaudy splendors of Dubai to summers in the Irish countryside, we had a grand and restless childhood.
Growing up, our father read to us every night- Shakespeare, Doyle, Dickens and both Testaments. Evening readings became the constant that held us together amidst the ceaseless moving, the deep-rooted impermanence that crept into our young minds. Friends, homes, and landscapes might come and go, but come seven o’clock, papa would be reading Watership Down to us, no matter what.
I fear that my siblings and I will all end up teachers, which, frankly, is what our father should have been. Perhaps we’ve all internalized that fact and are subconsciously trying to rectify it. More likely it’s a combination of our wanderlust and our desperate reliance on literature for grounding in life. My brother Will, Siobhan, and myself, are three very, very different people. He studied Near Eastern studies and Arabic in Arizona. She was a psychology and then journalism major in California. I drunkenly blustered through Communications in St. Louis. Will is thoughtful, prone to ill health, an avid hiker. Siobhan is a peppy, warm churchgoer who dreamt of a newspaper job. I’m a brooding sort who wanted to make movies. But one by one, despite our varied personalities and pursuits, we all ended up teaching. It’s the Stewart curse, I suppose. We hate to be alone, love kids, and tend to be too restless for other jobs. So by the end of 2010 we were all teaching; Will with the Peace Corps in Morocco, and Siobhan and I with a small English teaching company in Stockholm.
But I couldn’t maintain it. Sweden was killing me; chokingly cold, frustratingly private, distressingly concerned with style, and expensive. By December I had a head full of frozen fog and I was in a dangerous spiral- obsessing over quantum physics and existentialism, impatient to know the great mysteries of the universe, tired of mishandling my life, and paralyzed by the final cruel blows of a drawn-out break up with the girl that I had dated throughout nearly all of college. In a hotel in the northern reaches of Sweden where I was working the busy New Years rush as a waiter and room server I came to the end of my rope. The low grey sky pressed down on me and the endless icy land was flecked with twinkling bits of moisture and small black stones that cast long needling shadows in the setting sun. In winter in Sweden, the sun never really quite rises. Instead it struggles up for three or four hours as if carrying some added weight before setting at an eerily early hour.
Two week later I was not only still alive but I also happened to chance upon a website for an orphanage in northern India called The Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission. I decided that if I was going to keep living then something had to give. Something had atrophied in me and I was no longer interested in spending a single moment doing things that didn’t feed my mind or nourish my spirit. I had a new thirst and I didn’t give a damn about planning or waiting. I was going to go to this orphanage and I was not going to look back.
What I didn’t realize as I went back into debt, borrowing the three hundred dollars from my bank that I needed to book a ticket to Delhi, was that The Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission isn’t just anywhere in India. It’s walking distance from the Nepal border.
On March 20th, 2011, I arrived with a week’s worth of clothing, a pile of books, and a well-worn guitar at the orphanage where I would live, work, become part of a new family, and eventually, leave to find the girl who seemed to have the answers that I had been seeking for so long from my strange childhood to my heartbroken entrance into adult life and, nearly, to a young death.

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