In 2009 I found a yoga program in the Indian Himalayas, an ashram run by Sivananda in Uttar Kashi, and by the time I decided i wanted to go it was too late and they were full.
In Dec 2010, this time being over efficient, I signed up again for the same summer yoga teachers training and got a spot booked. Come April 2011 I sent my passport to get an Indian visa, and alas I wasn’t rejected but also wasn’t given a visa in time for me to attend the training.
Early June I started to fret about my summer plans all in disarray. I had really wanted to go to the mountains. It was a calling i’d been feeling now for close to 2 years, one that had no real reason, one that genuinely arose from my heart. maybe i knew that the mountains would show me the rhythm of life.
In comes Ahmed. Nov 2010, I was invited to a “it’s a wrap” party (where I only knew the host) and met a man in glasses having a drink who at the time worked for an innovative socially minded business company, married to a wonderful Lithuanian woman. somehow over the course of the next few hours we had already had our first fight, first apology, and what I clearly remember from this exchange is that the end of it, Ahmed said, that I never want to lose you as a friend.
Needless to say this doesn’t happen in Karachi, especially Karachi parties often. or it does but those friendships never materialize. thankfully for us this one did. Sitting with Ahmed one warm June evening up came the topic of my empty summer days which I had already planned to be off of work. He was going to Hindu Kush Heights with his wife Neringa, and asked why don’t I join them. and as much as I would have been welcome, I felt a bit like a third wheel, especially since they live apart most of the year as it is. But I kept that name in mind, plus the amazing look in Ahmed’s eyes whenever he spoke of Uncle Siraj, his trek and the beauty of the Chitral valley.
Friday: Google, Hindu Kush Heights, phone number, call, Aunty Ghazala (unbeknownst to me then) and say: I’m interested in visiting HKH, I’ll be traveling alone, I hope that’s safe, and I’m really dying to go for a trek, about 4-5 days, can you accommodate me? She said, email us and we’ll get back to you.
Friday night: at my aunt’s house planning a yoga photo shoot with a friend, I check my email and read:
Would you be interested to join a British couple(husband and wife) on a five day trek over a 14000ft pass in Chitral in the last week of June? They are happy to have you as part of their group. Let me know and I will give details.
My heart jumped into my throat. I started to sweat, and not because of the humidity. Is this something I could do? Was I ready? Oh god. I decided to sleep on it.
I woke up the next morning and after yoga while doing my usual browsing on the web, tried to compose a reply to the above email when I receive a call from an unknown number, who turns out to be Uncle Siraj. Within 5 minutes of checking about my age, fitness, etc and answering some of my questions I was convinced. His voice had such a strong and caring tone to it. I remember telling him in the first conversation, that I don’t know why but I already feel like we’re family. Prophetic intuition I call it now!
Settled in now with the knowledge that even if nothing works out with other plans I had with friends about traveling up north, for 10-14 days I had figured out something that I knew I was meant to do. Trek. Mountains. Hike. Heights.
In comes Junaid. I had met Junaid at various parties on the Karachi scene, and on a memorable full moon night at the beach, was the first time I remember having a real conversation with him. I had a bit too much to drink and I was in full full moon spirits as a group of 20 of us waded in the calm sea of Karachi with moonlight shining on us. Months later I meet him again on the beach and this time while I share my summer plans, Junaids ears perk up and he says “I’d love to do something like that. Really”.
Despite not being able to raise one eyebrow I know that my first reaction was skeptical. I had heard this now many times. People saying they were interested in adventure, but then really being interested in just talking about adventure. (note: at the trek I learned that Junaid is the kind of person who never says he will do something unless he means it)
I decided to grill Junaid over a cup of coffee the next evening. He invited his policeman friend. We sat at Havana, a place where you can smoke cuban cigars and order from the 3 best restaurants in town. I’d never been before, always felt a little off limits to me. But here we go. After sufficient yogi grilling, which I’m sure as you can imagine is in fact just friendly conversation, Junaid decided he was in.
And then comes Mohammed (I call him Moe but he prefers Mohammed). Trace back 21 years and the first Gulf War. A girl named Reem Malik moves to Karachi from Kuwait, and is in my grade at the American school in Karachi. We become instant friends. And stay attached to the hip for the next 9 years til we graduate. Reem and I drift apart only to reconnect again last year through skype because of our mutual interests in yoga, spirituality and healing. Mohammed is Reem’s older brother who is also now living in Karachi after a long stint in the US. And though I have seen Mohammed for years on and off, my clearest memory of him was in his gold rimmed glasses, squeaky voice, playing table tennis circa early 1990’s.
August 2010, I start my second semester at Szabist and teaching brand new freshies Intro to Social Sciences and on my attendance list I read the name: Mohammad Malik. The same name jogs my memory. Months later I sent a friend request on facebook, and early June the original Mohammed Malik and I plan to catch up over a bite to eat at my favorite local cafe, The Second Floor.
The hour speeds by as we eat. It’s my first real conversation with Mohammed, despite knowing him for more than half my life. And ofcourse up comes my trekking trip, by now which I am excitedly sharing with everyone. Mohammed seems genuinely interested too and also seems like he would be able to handle himself up in the mountains. But skeptical about the arrangements. In any case I send him the emails I have with more details about the trek from Uncle Siraj. A few days later I get an affirmative. He’s in.
So now there are 3 karachiites, and we’ve found that the British (and Aussie) couple have another friend, George, joining them too. Plus Uncle Siraj we are now a magical number 7.
Tom & Libby + George are the most amazing so called “foreigners” I have met in Pakistan. In fact, there was nothing more foreign about them than a karachi yogini, dressed up like a bandit, tap dancing her way through Pakistani mountains.
I started the trip with no idea that I would have any connection to the British/Aussie contingent. But turns out I stayed in Galle and spent 3 days with Geoffrey, Libby’s former employer in Sri Lanka. and my good friend had drinks with George when she was in Galle. Tom & Libby had been to Ulpotha, one of my favorite places, many many times. And they all knew Matthew, a memorable friend and massage therapist from my first visit to Ulpotha. Small small south asian world.
Tom & Libby had met Uncle Siraj at a party in Islamabad a few months ago and instantly connected to him. They planned this wonderful trip, which luckily somehow we all got to be part of. And to trace how Libby and Tom got to Sri Lanka (separately) and then how they met is a story I hope they’ll both write. Libby has written a wonderful book, Monsoon Rain and Icicle Drops that chronicles her journey to Sri Lanka and then various mountains around the world. Inspiring, heartfelt and strong. George who spent years traveling to Sri Lanka, did what so few people have the courage to do: changed his entire life and opened a beautiful boutique hotel down south in Galle 5 years a go.
George almost didn’t get a visa for Pakistan, Tom & Libby almost didn’t get their No Objection Certificate to trek, Mo had almost booked his tickets to Sri Lanka, Junaid similarly had plans to go the US, and of course my no show visa for India. It was the trip that shouldn’t have been that was.
When I realized all these incredible gigantic coincidences I felt that the universe which at most times feels so random has some specific design. has something that connects all of us all the time, even when we don’t see it or accept it. its the eternal paradox: being the master of our destinies while accepting all these elements in life, which are out of our immediate control, bring us to where we are in this present moment.
only family can see each other like this!
love at first trek, what a wonderful family the seven of us had for those 10 days. And for me the best and most amazing part was how we shared everything. and how i have a good feeling we’re going to trek again together. i feel protective almost and a little bit in awe that everything happened as it did. and yet there is so much I can’t share or will never know about all our individual journeys which led us to this beautiful and unique meeting place, called Hindu Kush Heights and the Shah Jinali Pass.
Thank you Uncle Siraj for sharing your beautiful home with us. Without you none of this would have even begun to be possible.
Opened up The Sufi Book of Life and serendipitously landed on this quote to finish this post: 36. Al-Ali. Experiencing Life at Its Peak. When you are guided to this pathway, take the opportunity to feel yourself at the peak of everything, including letting any thought of your self disappear. Real ecstasy is one of life’s rare gifts. Sometimes – especially when we’re not expecting or seeking it – one of life’s “peak experiences” can transform our whole view of life in a radical way.