Flagstone streets are my favorite memory of our small community in South Asia. They knit the whole area together, winding through uncountable monasteries and temples.
Most of the stones are variations of slate gray sprinkled with occasional hues of brown. I loved the feel and sound of my feet on these roads when the cold, dry season left dusty grit scattered over them. My favorite Columbia™ boots kicked up earthy smells of pine needles and dried leaves.
Of course I enjoyed my stretch of road the most. For many years my life happened on those particular flagstones as I walked from our flat to the center of the community.
The elements of my afternoon walk felt like home:
Putting my palms together to greet people I knew. Saying hello to monks (some of our students) as I passed through monastery grounds. Observing their intricate paintings depicting history and religion.
Exiting the monastery gates, I walked past families with physical disabilities or special needs, asking passers-by for contributions to their organizations. They always sat near banners someone else had stretched out on the road for them. On one occasion the banner read, “Contributions for the Illiterate.” It was upside down so Daniel stopped to fix it.
“Thanks Daniel. We didn’t know it was like that. We are illiterate.”
We had compassion mixed with the bizarre feeling we’d stepped into a Far Side drawing. The men we helped had a good sense of humor about it. While this particular situation was lighthearted, I don’t remember a day when my afternoon walk didn’t show me an injustice or tragedy that most of the time, I could do very little to remedy. I saw so many heartbreaking things in our community. It would have been easy to live emotionally exhausted 24/7 had I constantly analyzed my feelings about them, so I had to learn balance in how I opened my heart.
After this there were a few bends in the road– regular spots for boys begging spare change, young mothers asking for help, and lepers getting just close enough to hold out hands for money. Some needs were legitimate. Others were not. The local police and shopkeepers were usually able to provide insight into who really needed help and where the money went.
Managing to get through this area without being grabbed several times meant a brief pause to see what was new at the carpentry and rug weaving shop. Breathing in smells of freshly sawn wood and following the swirling patterns of rugs on display was calming. The shop was on the straight stretch just before the little dairy store where I bought yogurt and cheese. The yogurt was similar to greek yogurt and was made fresh every day. Perfect in the morning with granola and sweet fruit on top.
The cheese was always covered to keep flies off, but the “aroma” still hit me even before I went up the stairs to the store. In spite of the smell it was delicious, and I could choose between “cow” or “yak.” I usually chose cow cheese unless they were out. Cow cheese was popular, but the yak cheese was okay too (unless I wanted to make pizza). If I returned home and reported that today there were no flies near the cheese, Daniel usually said something like, “If flies have a sense of smell of course they weren’t near it.”
Leaving the dairy, I would round the corner to fruit and vegetable vendors to choose things for making dinner. The selection varied every day so I never knew exactly what I would be cooking. Another facet of life I enjoyed there– the situations that forced my creativity and tastes to grow. The fruit vendor became a friend because of how much I despised papaya when I first arrived in country. To me, it smelled like sweaty feet and tasted like vomit. But over the years he taught me to enjoy it. Squirting lime on it helps.
Near the produce vendors were a few murals painted by my artist neighbor. My favorite one depicted a man in his country’s dress, riding a horse and leaning over slightly to grab something. It was a traditional event on horseback that is important in the culture. So colorful. So well done. As was the giant painting of her dog near the dairy store. Our neighbor’s dog was also giant in real life. Appropriately named “lion” in the local language (for his size), he was gentle as a lamb—terrified of thunderstorms and being alone. When either one made him afraid, he hurried down the stairs in our building to knock on the door of our flat, mournfully whining his sadness until we let him in. After a few minutes of snuggling into the rug beside our couch and thorough petting, he was usually okay to go back upstairs.
“Saag Alley” (so named by myself) began just under the murals. The word “saag” covers every type of edible leaf available. It was a good place to buy things for salad as well as flowers for my table. At the end of “Saag Alley” there were usually white duck eggs for sale. Most eggs were brown, so if I ever wanted a few white ones to paint for Easter, that was the place to go.
From there the road opened into the heart of the community—a sacred site. An enormous mound, white and gold, painted with blue eyes. The large golden spike at the top— a striking contrast against the sky. The site was the center of an extensive, circular stone area—almost a small community within itself. The ground is paved with an array of brick and flagstone. Craft stores, money changers, restaurants and tourist curio shops line the outer edge of the circle. Just outside the shops, there are benches, areas to buy seed for feeding pigeons (our daughter’s favorite activity at the time), and lots of worshippers.
At the main entrance of the circle, people bowed, gently touching their foreheads to a black and golden statue, inhaling incense. The smell of it always filled the air, but occasionally it hung in thick clouds, impossible not to smell and taste. The end of my afternoon walk took me through this exact spot. (I wish I could include some sort of sensory feature so you could experience incense overwhelming you).
My destination was usually my friend’s coffee shop, where I enjoyed iced coffee and a few minutes in my latest book. A pick me up after homeschooling and taxiing my daughter to ballet or soccer. And an opportunity for Daniel to spend time playing with our daughter after managing & teaching at the English Center.
I looked forward to this time— a lull in my busy day. It was all so wonderfully ordinary. Granted, the ordinary of that culture looked different from that of my passport country, but over time the people, places, and routines felt like home.
Today as my daughter and I walked through our neighborhood, I noticed the sights, smells, sounds and people I’ve been experiencing for the past few months in my new country. I wouldn’t say it feels like home yet, but it was a good walk. It reminded me of a few walks in South Asia, when my heart was open to enjoying everything around me and I could see God at work in the ordinary routines of life. I think it might be possible again, but in a new way. My heart is slowly waking up to appreciate and enjoy what my life is now.
©2018 Chrissy Winslow – All Rights Reserved