Excerpt

Author’s Note

While transcribing episodes I had previously only recited verbally, the chance discovery of two passports covering the period, verified the chronological order of my travels and encouraged me to flesh out details and probe deeper into my memory. The personal exchanges in this book are related as accurately as I can recall, regardless of how painful that recollection has been. The chance encounters you read about—not so rare in my life—really did happen, and names were made up only when I could not recall the actual names. I do not intend to dishonor anyone and I apologize if my version of events makes some, especially my loved ones, uncomfortable.

 

Page 1

Visions of flying carpets from childhood books in Costa Rica augmented by Hollywood versions of mysterious, romantic sheiks on white horses racing over sand dunes formed my impression of ancient Persia. At age twenty-three I was on my way to Persia, now called Iran, with my two children, Frankie, age three and Teresa, age one. My husband, Frank, an airline pilot, relocated to a new job there two months ago, and had sent for us; certainly that meant he was committed to change for the better. It was not, however, my positive outlook toward this change, or those childhood images, that induced me to make this trip. I had simply resolved to follow my husband to Iran because that was my only remaining option. I was totally unprepared for the situation I was now entering.

I gathered everything I thought the three of us would need for our long journey from New York, across the world, including a new invention called disposable diapers for Teresa. In 1957, these diapers were far too expensive to use every day, but having them along now would make our arduous trip much easier. Soon we were ready and Dad picked us up at Mrs. Vieto’s house on 182nd Street, where my children and I had been living the last three months, and drove us to the international airport, then called Idlewild.

Watching the scenery along the road to the airport I thought about why Dad and I never talked much about anything. How can you know someone for such a long time and not really know who that person is? Yet, it seems there has always been that distance between us. He left me with his mother when I was young and left Costa Rica in search of work that would earn a better living. He returned after some time in Panama and migrated to the U.S. I was nine years old at that time and did not see him again until I arrived in New York at age fourteen. By then I felt all grown up, but our relationship had not progressed from those years living with Grandmother in Costa Rica, receiving only occasional letters. While he was away I used to reminisce about how much my papito loved me. Since my earliest memory of our life together, my love and respect for that often distant father had developed into a perception of a person greater than the reality of the dad of today: a childhood relationship whose closeness did not endure. Now he is seeing me off to another foreign country and he has not asked any questions. “Dad, I am scared,” the child in me would say to him. “I wish you could come with us.”

In my mind today, however, I need my dad’s support. “Frank wants us all to be together again—that is a good sign, isn’t it, Dad?” In truth, I didn’t know. Deep down, Frank was a good man. I had seen him stop drinking on his own and I believed that with my help he would realize the excessive drinking was the root of our problems and that if he could control his drinking habit, our lives would really be OK.

 

Page 104

The next morning I counted the money Frank had left me and figured it would cover little more than a month of food and necessary incidental expenses. I needed a survival plan. Did I know anyone who might help? Perhaps… Yes! The pilot who gave me the flying lessons. I called and his wife, surprised to hear my voice, answered, “I thought you were still in Dacca.” I asked about her family, the children, who she said were fine, and as she returned the question, my bold approach collapsed and I began sobbing. When I was finally able to manage my uncontrollable cries, I eked out, “My children, my children.”

“What about your children?” Her breath indicated alarm while her voice remained composed.

“They are gone.”

“What do you mean, gone?” The composure had turned to a mother’s total alarm. I related the whole story, from the sudden departure from Dacca, to the green card issue, and to the heartbreaking episode on the airplane.

“Mrs. Baleskie, the children are not going to school tomorrow and they want to go to the beach. Would you like to come with us?”

“Please, just call me Isabel.”

“And you call me Aarya.” Good, because I felt I should have remembered her name and did not want to admit that I did not.

“Yes, I would love to; I really do not want to be alone. At what time shall we go?”

“The morning is best because the sun is too hot after ten. Isabel, we can come by the hotel for you.”

“Thank you Aarya, I’ll be ready. And we can all have lunch here afterwards.” This greatly relieved the pressure of loss and loneliness and gave me a plan for tomorrow. I realized that I was still in the same clothes as yesterday, having not undressed last night while reliving that fitful event. Supported now by the knowledge that there was a friend, I progressed some by tackling my concern about funds and inquired at the hotel front desk. They said that they would refund the money for any unused days of the prepaid month. I realized that if the green card arrived soon those funds could apply toward the cost of the ticket to New York.

 

Page 151

When Jean Claude told me that we were going to stay at a maharajah’s place for the night, I envisioned a large palace, after all, that seemed to be Jean Claude’s style: rich. But when we finally got there what we found was more like a tiny village. There were no paved areas or defined walkways and as we entered I noticed that each earthen dwelling apparently served as a residence for one member of the harem and her children. In the center of this cluster of small dwellings was a communal cooking place where several women and children were busy preparing food. The women varied in age, shape, weight, height, and in the color of their skin. The children were of all ages, but shared the same eyes and hair: black. We assumed they also shared the same father. We could not communicate with them in words because they only spoke the regional tribal language we encountered earlier. In a few minutes the maharajah appeared and greeted us in English in a most friendly manner. We introduced ourselves and he invited us to stay. Several people of the village joined in the introduction occasion.

A little girl took a liking to me. She had lost one or two of her lower baby teeth and I guessed that she was about five. Her hair was long and tied loosely in a braid. She was barefoot and wore a dress too long for her height. I picked her up, which encouraged other children, and before I knew it I was surrounded with little friends. Both joy and sadness filled me. My heart and mind wished that my own children could be here to enjoy what I was relishing in this moment. These people and their lifestyle seemed so different from anything my children or I had known, yet much was the same. They smiled, they cried, they showed fear of strangers, and they played and fought with each other. I wondered where in the world my own precious offspring were. Then the little girl sitting on my lap made a motion that she wanted to get down and go play, and just for an instant I held on to her; I didn’t want her to leave me, too. Sadly, I realized I really did not know what my children were being exposed to or who was holding them. It was truly heartbreaking

We graciously accepted the invitation and stayed the night, the maharajah treating us royally. As a full moon and millions of stars glistened overhead, we all sat outside on hand-woven rugs and colorful pillows intricately embroidered by the women and girls of the harem. This was much better than my imaginary castle. Some men appeared out of nowhere carrying instruments. They made their respectful greetings and then took their places on the ground and began to play. A beautiful young lady then appeared. Her long, auburn hair was so shiny it seemed to glitter. She was a belly dancer without rival and used her hair like an instrument. What an extraordinary gift these humble people gave us: a lifelong memory of one starry night.

The smoke from the fire of the night before was still smoldering when we awoke. Jean Claude and I looked at each other knowing we would always remember that night and these enchanting people and their village. I wanted to stay there longer but this was only the second day of a long trip and there was no time to linger and reminisce. Quickly pulling our clothes on we stepped outside to find arrangements already made for eating. Pillows and bowls were set in a circle on the ground and it looked inviting. The maharajah immediately appeared dressed strikingly like I remembered from old movies. He wore a white turban and a long white shirt over loose trousers, a garment called a kameez. He greeted us and motioned for us to sit next to him saying, “You have a long road ahead of you. It is best that you eat well, for many miles ahead you will not find anything but sand. Perhaps if you are lucky you will see some of our big caravans.” Later I learned that these camel caravans are employed to carry goods, probably illicit, from Afghanistan across this area to avoid border controls on the 500-kilometer route to the Arabian Sea.