The Journey series
This week’s Mustard Seed resumes my travel tales.
With ice removed from the wheel wells and the front tires free to steer again, we continued on cautiously. We saw many vehicles abandoned by the roadside, some too damaged to drive, others just stuck.
We stopped at every tea house we met to warm up and to find relief from such stressful driving conditions. The washrooms were very interesting. None would pass muster back home. At one restaurant, the washroom was about three feet wide by nine long with a door in the centre of the long wall. About a foot and a half each side of the door a short wall stretched from side to side. Patrons would lower there trousers, back up, squat, and let fall behind the partition whatever needed to be left behind. I had to wait as the attendant cleaned it out. A stick propped the door open and he was simply scooping out the troughs with a shovel and firing the contents out onto the gravel parking lot. I imagined he must handle the chore differently during warmer times, probably using buckets to cart the loads a little further. I felt thankful that the worst of our facilities are better than the best of those we encountered during that phase of our journey. Looking back, I remember how often I felt more gratitude for the comforts of home than compassion for conditions where we were. I was glad we were just passing through.
Our ultimate destination, before turning back toward home, was Bandar Pahlavi in northern Iran. Our eastbound route intersected the northbound highway at Qazvin. Tehran lay about a hundred miles further on. Many people we had met along the way advised it would be well worth the detour. We arrived on a dark, rainy night, found a safe parking spot well into Tehran, crawled under the blankets in the back, and woke refreshed the next morning to a warm sunny day. We walked about, finding a bakery, a grocer, and a tea shop. I was surprised to learn that there was a local ski hill. We decided to splurge and headed off to Abali Ski Resort for a day on the slopes.
Visions of Whistler, Cypress Bowl, Grouse Mountain, and Mount Seymour back home were soon dashed as we approached the ski hill. We decided to make the best of it. Abali Ski Resort had no lodge and no ski shop. There was gate, a ticket booth, and a t bar. Just inside, an entrepreneur had an eclectic assortment of ski paraphernalia spread over some folding tables. We rented boots and skis. My sister's skis were a proper pair. My two skis were the same lengths but not the same brands.
We made our way to the t bar and had a few trips down the short run of tall moguls. On one descent I picked a fairly good course and reached a decent speed before a rather large chador-clad woman wandered into my path. I was confronted with three poor options; crash into the t bar, crash into the woman, or plough straight into a mogul. I chose the third. I came to an abrupt halt. One of my skis was standing straight up, firmly stuck in the snow. I was dangling via safety strap from the makeshift stake. I contorted into a position where I could unbuckle my tether and released my foot.
I rose, brushed off the snow, and pulled up on the ski. It wouldn’t budge. I gave it a kick to loosen it. To my surprise, the ski popped out sideways. There was a ninety-degree bend about a foot from the tip. The aluminum strips down each side of the ski held the two pieces together. I managed to bend it almost straight. It was obviously damaged but surprisingly sturdy. I continued on.
A few runs later the t bar closed down. When we returned our equipment the proprietor decided to abuse his propitious circumstance with two foreigners. He demanded five hundred American dollars compensation. I complained that was a completely unreasonable amount for one of a not-pair of skis. I countered with fifty Deutschmarks. I felt that was also too much, but manageable. The man became irate, hopped up, waved his arms in the air, and began yelling. I decided it was more prudent to flee than to bargain further. We disappeared amid the throng of departing skiers and escaped. Skiing in Iran was quite an adventure.
Next week: Finding My Uncle.
This week’s Mustard Seed takes a break from my travels. We are now well into Lent, a good time to consciously take a break from routine.
People often ask, “What did you give up for Lent?” This year I gave up evening snacks – more to have an answer than to make serious progress in my spiritual life. In honesty, my choice was more concerned with the growth of my middle than the growth of my soul.
This is not to say I’m being frivolous with Lent. Rather, this year I decided to focus on my prayers. I’m being more discerning and contemplative in my prayers. I ask myself, “What am I saying?”, “What does that mean for me?” and, “Do I truly mean what I’m saying?”
As an example, The Lord’s Prayer can roll off our tongue at the snap of the fingers. We hear the first two words and the rest slips out with hardly a thought. But wait. What do those words entail? Our Father. Not my, not your – our. We are brothers and sisters. How big is that we? Who belongs in that we? Catholics? Christians? Everyone? Is there such a thing as a half sibling or step sibling? Can anyone choose not to be a sibling? What are our obligations to our siblings? How should we treat our siblings? This contemplation can go on and on.
Father is difficult and still painful for me to contemplate. My father left when I was five years old. I was too young to know him. My friends had fathers. I knew something of fathers from observing my friends’ fathers but, mostly, I knew that I lacked something I should have. I faced many hurdles that I felt would be easier to tackle if I had a father; they should have been easier.
When I was nineteen I went to visit my father because I needed to know who he was. During the week I was there I learned a bit about him but not enough. He suggested I attend a nearby college and stay with him and his new wife. We could come to know each other. The following July I moved from Vancouver, British Columbia to Fremont, California to attend college, and to come to know my father. Shortly after settling in, my father accepted a new job and moved to New Jersey. He left me again.
When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, He gave us a new understanding of God. Previously, gods were thought of as masters, tyrants, despots, or puppeteers. Jesus’ prayer revealed God to be Our Father. Yet for me, that was an alien concept. For some people from broken and dysfunctional families it's even terrifying.
How does one with such experience understand The Lord’s Prayer? My intellectual comprehension of fatherhood was incongruous with my experience of it. I didn’t truly know what a father was until well after my own sons were born. Without my wife’s understanding, patience, and help as I learned to be a father I might never have known.
Fatherhood is rife with doubts, concerns, and failures, yet nothing can break the bond between father and child. I found through my sons that what my father lost by our estrangement was greater than what I had lost.
For many years I struggled to understand why I am, why anyone is. Now that I have two sons, I have an idea of why Our Father who art in heaven created humans. It is better to have children, with all their imperfections, than to not have the love we find through them. I am now comforted to know He is my Father. He will not forsake me. There is nothing I can do that is beyond His mercy.
Next week: On the Road Again.
This week’s Mustard Seed continues from where we left off with warm hearts and cold everything else.
With just enough gas to get us over the hill and on to the next gas station we were on our way again. Turning the heater on in our VW van only created a cold draft. We found it better to leave it off. I bundled up with so many layers of clothes I could barely squeeze behind the steering wheel. My sister had just as many clothes plus all our blankets. We were still freezing.
We stopped at a café, more to warm up than to eat. A wood burning stove crackled in the middle of the seating area. We pulled chairs close and sat. Unable to read the menu, we managed to order tea and food. I’m not sure if we had thick soup or thin stew but it was warm and tasty. Our waiter/cook was the only other person there. He had plenty to say, though I have no idea what. It did sound pleasant though.
After thawing most of the way through I set off to satisfy another need. The front of the diner rested on the edge of the gravel parking lot. The rest was stood on stilts on a steep hill. The restroom resembled an outhouse. Everything that went through the opening rolled down the hill below. As cold as the draft was that came up from below, I was glad we weren’t there in the heat of summer.
As we warmed up we shed layers until we were down to just a few. The proprietor refreshed our tea regularly and seemed glad of the company even though we could only communicate in gestures. Eventually we donned our layers and ventured once more into the cold. I’m sure the owner knew we were thanking him heartily.
The road was very long and very straight. The food and warmth calmed my sister and the drone of the engine and wheels lulled her to sleep. After a few hours we came to the end of the plateau to find a very steep decline. The road was a series of switchbacks. I learned from my previous experience with black ice to proceed very slowly. I took my foot completely off the gas pedal and shifted to a lower gear. As I approached the first turn I found that pressing the brakes actually caused the van to accelerate. I switched off the ignition to maximize the braking effect of the engine compression. When the time came to turn the steering wheel would not budge. I was sure we were about to slam into the cliff before us. Unable to do much more, I prayed. The ruts in the road were just deep enough to steer us around the bend. Phew! The next bend was even worse; we were about to dive over the cliff. My prayers became more fervent. I was too scared to even count the switchbacks. I looked over to my still sleeping sister. I debated with myself whether to wake her up to say goodbye or let her sleep and spare her the terror. I chose the latter.
Thankfully either the ruts or the prayers proved just enough to steer around each curve.
As the road levelled out we came to a stop. I got out and examined what had gone wrong with our steering. I found that ice had built up inside the wheel wells to within a sixteenth of an inch of the tires. As I kicked at the ice to knock it lose I jarred my sister awake. She looked out the window and asked what I was doing. Still very shaken, all I could say was, “Go back to sleep.”
Next week: Next Country.
This week’s Mustard Seed follows us as we leave Europe, enter Asia, and traverse northern Turkey.
Crossing the Bosporus Bridge brought back memories of home and our iconic Lions Gate suspension bridge. We broached the third continent of our trip mid-span. After that, both circumstances and surroundings reminded us we were far from home.
With our resources strained by the Istanbul theft and temperatures dropping as autumn progressed we hastened our pace. Elevation played an increasing role as we climbed to Ankara at 3000 feet, Sivas at 4000 feet, and still upwards beyond. Just past Sivas it began raining. The clouds brought the temperature down further. After a few hours of miserable driving conditions the rain stopped but the roads remained wet and the damp chill endured. Night driving with headlights reflecting off the long, dark, straight, shiny road was very stressful. Just outside Erzurum, at 6000 feet, I saw a sea of red lights ahead. I eased off the gas and downshifted as I approached the idling cars, trucks, and buses parked in front of us. As I closed in I pressed the brakes but, instead of stopping, our van began to spin and then slide sideways. The front was just inches from the steep swale dividing the highway.
I held the wheel steady, slid, and prayed. Fortunately we slid straight along, gully a few inches ahead and a bus a few inches behind. We came to rest about two feet from hitting the last car in our lane. Shaken, I got out only to be surrounded by a group of angry men shaking their fists and yelling in Turkish. I was still too stunned to be scared. I just stood surrounded by the men and the noise until another man came to calm the crowd. He began directing them. The road was so slick they were able to spin our van on the spot. He then shooed them back to their vehicles, gave me a broad smile, and patted my shoulder. I was still too dumbstruck to respond. He walked away and I climbed back in the van.
Eventually the jam cleared and we were on our way — slowly, now that I was aware just how treacherous the icy road was. We found a safe place to stop for the night and huddled together under all the blankets and jackets we possessed.
The light of day made driving much better but the cold surpassed what our Volkswagen van’s heater could counter. A few hours on we were thankful to see a multilingual sign warning us, “FILL UP NOW! Last gas for 150 miles”. We pulled in and topped off the tank. The station 150 miles on was closed. We prayed and pressed on, sputtering to a stop just shy of cresting a long, steep hill. I calmed my sister and got out to hitch a ride. After quite a span with no traffic at all a pickup truck approached. I waved my thumb frantically. It stopped. The driver lowered the window. I proffered the Turkish word I learned from our waiter, Sammy, back in our favourite Istanbul coffee shop. Tesekkur — thank you. He motioned for me to hop in the back. One hundred yards to the top of the hill and a few downhill miles beyond that, we arrived at an open station. While his pickup was being refuelled, without our saying anything to each other, the driver borrowed a jerry can and filled it at the other pump. He passed the gas to me and drove back to our van. He waited as I poured the fuel into our tank. He took the empty can and tossed it in the back of his truck. I offered many more tesekkurs and humble gestures as he departed waving to us through his rear view mirror. Our ears, noses, hands, and feet were very cold but our hearts were very warm.
Next week: Downhill Slide.
Peter T Elliott