After a treacherous reroute out of Amsterdam, we finally made it to the Middle East. My amazing friend Jamie met me in Florida and took on the task of flying with me from the East Coast to the Middle East, all out of love for me, I guess. I’m still not entirely sure why she signed herself up for such a (mis)adventure, but I’m so so grateful.
Because Steve had to get on out here and get settled in his new job, I was left to get our stuff packed up and get myself and the kids to the Middle East. The Navy (after some coaxing) finally allowed me to take a commercial flight – instead of a Navy flight – out here so that I could bring a companion to help with the kids. I just didn’t see how the trip was going to work without an extra set of hands. I mean, how would I even go to the bathroom on a plane with two toddlers in tow? Not pretty.
So Jamie agreed to accompany us and then stay a bit and help us get settled and just be a witness to the insanity of this entire proposition.
We flew from Ft Lauderdale to Atlanta – uneventful.
We flew from Atlanta to Amsterdam – relatively uneventful. Jamie and Luke in the back of the plane. Lane and I in the middle of the plane. Both kids sprawled out for most of the overnight flight, digging their feet into the other person in the row (at one point, in her sleep, Lane put her foot on the man’s shoulder in our row – “Um, excuse me. I’m sorry.”) So between cat-naps, Jamie and I tried to keep toddler limbs in check and keep toddlers from rolling off their make-shift beds, which only happened a couple of times in my case.
Then we got to Amsterdam. And the tone of the entire trip changed. “Your flight from Amsterdam to Bahrain is cancelled.”
“OK. What are our options?”
“You have no options. You will go to a hotel out in town tonight and come back for a 4:00pm flight tomorrow.”
“No, that’s not going to work,” I say to the woman, refusing to leave the counter. I knew that I couldn’t wrangle my children any longer than was already going to be necessary, and she had to get us on a flight. Somehow. Somewhere.
So she did. After 15 minutes of vigorous typing and lots of Dutch and shaking her head and furrowing her brow and pursing her lips, she says . . .
“OK, I have a flight for you from here to Cairo and then Cairo to Bahrain.”
“We’ll take it.”
I don’t regret the decision now, knowing that we’re alive. But what followed was something equivalent to cheating death. And I’m not kidding.
We boarded “Egypt Air” – not particularly confidence-inspiring – and we headed to Cairo on what can only be described as the absolute most harrowing flight of my life. The turbulence was so bad that, at one point, I began screaming, “Dear God, please save us. Dear God, please save us. Dear God, please save us,” as I clutched my children to me who were both laughing at this point from the “wild ride, Mommy.”
Because we were one of the last to get tickets on this flight, Jamie had to sit a dozen rows back and I had both the kids. Four hours of total hell. People were throwing up. I was hysterical, literally sobbing after I finally stopped yelling. Passengers all around me were reaching out to me to hold my hand and give me a nod of reassurance though none of us spoke the same language.
The flight attendant with the orange lipstick and heavy musk perfume even hugged me a couple of times.
The plane would drop and the engines would rev and then get very quiet and then the plane would drop and the engines would rev. No one ever said I was the calmest flyer in the world, but this was torturous.
We finally landed in Cairo – two white women with strung out children – and we tried to make our way through the crowds of Muslim men, hoping someone could help us locate the stroller so I could at least confine L&L. Maybe it was the shock of adrenaline in my system from the flight, maybe it was pure exhaustion, or maybe it was reality, but Jamie and I were both ready to get out of the Cairo airport. Not somewhere you want to be for longer than absolutely necessary.
We finally boarded our plane for our final destination. Another 3 hours or so, and we landed safely in Bahrain. “It’s so pretty,” Lane said on our final approach – all the lights from the new financial harbor flickering in the very early morning darkness.
We landed at 3am with no luggage and no emotional reserves left. The relief was indescribable. I still wake up feeling relieved that the flight is over (and that we somehow, against all odds, survived).
But then Steve went back to work, and relief gave way to something much fiercer.
To be completely honest, the first week we were here was about trying not to panic. We won’t have any of our belongings for another six weeks, so we had to entertain the kids with what we brought in our suitcases and a generous donation of toys from another Navy family nearby. Every minute felt like we were herding cats, and I was on the ledge.
Even going out into town felt difficult. Everything seemed so different from the last time I was here. And then it dawned on me . . . it’s been seven years. A lot can change in seven years. And it has. That first week was all about realizing how much has changed, including how much has changed in our lives since we were last here. Most notably: we now have two children.
I had to keep reminding myself that the way I felt in those initial moments was not the way I was going to feel forever. But sometimes it’s so easy to forget that important truth when you’re jet-lagged and disoriented. I just repeated the mantra, “Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Don’t panic.”
Since that first week, things have lightened significantly. The old landmarks that I had been used to emerged through all the new construction, and the new landmarks became familiar all of a sudden. The changes on the base became welcomed instead of problematic, and the base is now easier to navigate. What felt like the wrong size shoe during that first week is beginning to feel like a better fit today — just a couple of weeks later.
And when we walked into our favorite carpet store in the souq and saw Yousef, it was as if I could take a breath. He looks exactly the same – maybe a bit more salt and pepper in the hair and beard – and he recognized us immediately. I teared up when Steve introduced him to our kids and he bent down and kissed Lane and she reached up to hug his neck. Seeing our kids climb all over the carpets and run and jump and play on pile after pile, I felt like it was all going to be OK.
In chapter 7 of Found Art, I talk about the healing power of the souq, how it truly brought Bahrain alive to me when we were here in 2003-2004, and how it captures such an essence of humanity – the languages, the bartering, the aromas, the gold, the dancing camels, the mosque alarm clocks that echo the call to prayer as the alarm, and of course the bubble gum pink Hannah Montana watches.
In the middle of that chapter I talk about how Yousef educated us on all things Persian carpets and how we would sit and drink tea with him and he would get the guys in the shop to flop rugs for us – one after another – and we would just take it all in, like a kind of therapy:
Though the souq or the Gulf or Yousef or the silence weren’t the cure in and of themselves, they were the spit and dirt that were mixed together and used as a salve on my badly blinded eyes.
I had been living in a dark place before all this—a kind of darkness that creeps in very slowly and sinuously, and before I knew it, the lights had gone out in my soul. I had been walking around town like this for some time, living but not alive enough. The beauty of the world was lost me, and all the things I loved were forgotten in lieu of all the things I thought I needed to be.
I couldn’t remember what it felt like to create or rest, or what it felt like to breathe. I couldn’t remember what it felt like to feel God, and I surely couldn’t remember what it felt like to pray.
God has a way of taking the most unsuspecting elements and using them to bind us up. When the miracle happens, when he touches our eyes with these elements and we are able to see, we realize that even dirt and spit contain a beauty all their own. . . .
After selecting a rug with Yousef all those years ago (have I mentioned it’s been seven years!), I wrote:
Every time I look at that captivating center medallion, I remember Yousef and the souq and the syrupy sweet tea and the way it feels to really see. The light was just a flicker at first. That’s how the healing begins—a faint but fervent flicker.
May God bind you up today, wherever you may be, as I pray he will continue to bind me up in this new (again) place . . . even if his healing agents are the least suspected: dirt, mud, spit, 117 degree heat, squirrelly toddlers, dancing camels, total displacement.
You never know what might do the trick. Believe me. You never know.
P.S. The picture at the beginning of the post is a set of old doors in the souq. You know I can’t resist anything made of distressed turquoise wood. Beautiful, right?!?!