Aspen – Tehran
A toe drags through the gravel, a raindrop lands on a hand, the clouds waft through the air as if being dragged by angels. The Maroon Bells appear stark white. They pierce through the clouds, surrounded by screaming yellow trees, ominously present and powerful yet benevolent. Amber waves of brush, burning red Aspen tops abound. A friend laughs, a child giggles, a deer frolics.
A soft kiss lands on the lips of a loved one, our hands embrace, small beads form on the skin. The sides of our mouths turn up in union, almost imperceptibly. Happiness found, love affirmed, memories made. My last few days in Aspen remembered.
A year ago at this time I had just landed in India. As I departed from the airport in a tiny open-air tuk-tuk we bobbed and weaved through the traffic. Lumbering trucks crashed over broken pavement, their bits a cacophony of noise, metal smashing on metal, loose chains slamming into their sides. Cows meandered across the highway. Burning charcoal billowed in the night sky, mixing with sewage, fresh spices, curry, and fragrant foliage, creating a pungent odor that circulated around my nasal cavity. It was all so absolutely and uniquely India, I knew that already.
Anesthetized. The word played again and again in my head, repeating itself over and over. This place, this magical, repugnant, fascinating, enchanting, dynamic place. Call it what you would but it was itself, unabashedly, wholeheartedly, unapologetically itself. It was magic.
What was home? Who were we? Anesthetized. The product of too many chain stores, safety regulations, and cultural decay. It seemed as if the culture wars and political divides had eroded the very social fabric that undergirded the American ideal, and corporatism had pulled down the charming, creaky little old brick buildings that once served as its backdrop. It felt as though the quaint corners of Glencoe and board shoulders of Chicago from my childhood had melted away, replaced with indistinguishable small towns and mid-size cities strewn about between our oceans. If we had not lost our soul, we had whitewashed it. The thought still lingers.
When I returned something changed. A move to Aspen proper left life feeling anything but anesthetized. It has been virulent, vibrant, challenging, elating, raucous, and absolutely vital and filled with new relationships, friends, opportunities, and challenges. The town itself an oil or pastel or watercolor backdrop depending on the season. Nature envelopes you in a warm hug every morning and adds a light tap on the butt bringing a smirk to your face and pep to your step. I’ve found home and settled in, veraciously embracing my community with unbounded determination, optimism, and enthusiasm.
Despite this recaptured sense of place, and connection, here I sit again with my laptop bobbing on flimsy plastic tray-table with each keystroke. The man to my right asleep, his black hoodie pulled up and framing his narrow eyes and broad cheekbones, his feet splayed out, uncovered, toenails big and round. My knees are in my chest and my waters cold. I can’t resist. Another off-season another trip. Wanderlust? Sure, but it’s so much more than that.
Each trip, each journey provides something new, something unexpected. Always unexpected. You cannot grow in your comfort zone, and so you must venture out. You cannot understand what you have, until you have seen something else. You cannot question what you know, until you have learned something new. You cannot appreciate your bonds, until they have been tried. Thomas Paine comes to mind. Those that want to change the world must first understand it, and I’m here to learn.
The question undoubtedly pervades.
“Let’s take the band aid off quick- Iran, Iraq, Turkey.”
Yes, yes, go back, you read that right.
No, I haven’t lost my marbles. I’m being safe, staying away from areas of conflict, always with a means of protection and an exit plan. Despite what the news says there are areas in the Middle East that are stable, safe, and even friendly. With national questions of the utmost importance looming, and blood and treasure once more on the docket to be spent, it seems to me that we best understand these places, the safe places, first. We must learn what sets them apart, what makes them friendly, what protects them from turmoil and war.
We have many questions to ask. Should we be involved and, if so, in what capacity? Should we go it alone or should we form alliances and partnerships and, if so, with whom? Are the people truly evil, crazy, and barbaric, or are they in fact simply people, living in the reality dealt to them under the régimes that rule them? Does the sentiment on the ground reflect what we hear on the news, or for that matter, what we hear from their own governments? After all, how often does a member of congress explicitly convey what you think? Is there an exit strategy? A strategy at all?
These are important questions, big questions and we should not allow anyone who has not asked them to claim clarity. We should not allow anyone who has not sat down at a table with both the American soldier and diplomat as well as the families of those we intend to engage to make decisions regarding life and treasure. Period. It is this type of obfuscational thinking that has destroyed healthcare and transferred the predominant cost of climate change to the poor.
Understanding must come first.
We should not act before we know. We should not deploy force before finding compassion and we should never hate before we care.
So, here I sit. Tired, and on my fourth flight. Thus far 3, 8, 6, and 3 hours. Layovers of 1, 8 and 16 hours have pushed travel time into the range of days, not hours. I look out over the husband and wife to my right. The sky is golden and sand swept, the entire panorama aglow. Mountains line the horizon touched by little whisps of purple and amber. In the very far reaches of my view-plane I can see row planted pines and a few small towers, Tehran.
The plane touches down and we exit expeditiously onto a new jetway. A man in a loose fitting sweater frantically checks his emails as he walks. He catches me out of the corner of his eye, surprised by what he sees he asks where I am from. “America, U.S.” I reply. Visibly startled he smiles, reaches to shake my hand as says “Welcome, welcome to Iran, you are a welcome guest, I hope you will enjoy”.
As I approach the passport queue I snap a quick picture to Instagram. Not a moment there after a rail thin, 5’2” security guard is calling me over. He looks to be in his mid-20s, clean shaven with angular frameless glasses covering a bookish face. He waves me past the line of control to a large reception desk and asks for my passport, I oblige. His face is solemn. He takes my passport than walks away. Peculiar.
He returns with two other youngish guards. They rifle through my passport and ask for my camera- summarily deleting my photo. I’ve been caught! They walk away. Minutes pass, tens of minutes. The heart rate quickens, the “what ifs” creep into my head. What if they see the Israeli stamps in my passport and cancel my visa? What if they search my luggage and find the large hunting knife and the Road & Track magazine with a scantily clad women in the back page advertising for that weird pillow? I push for a positive interaction, any positive interaction. I’m looking for allies. A wink here, a smile there, everyone seems to reciprocate except the skinny guard.
Soon nearly the whole plane has been through the checkpoint, only a few stragglers remain. The pattern is clear, two black Africans, a blonde Swede, four pale Russians, and me. Everyone is nervous, frantically milling about and talking in their own languages, only the casual dropping of “passport” conveys the subject. Finally, the captain strolls over casually, passports in hand. He hands them out one at a time, mine last. He grabs my hand, looks into my eyes and with a bellowing voice projects “Welcome to Iran”. As I turn for confirmation that I may leave each of the five guards repeats the welcome one at a time, I even get a few pats on the shoulder. “Thank you” I reply and begin to walk away.
“Wait, Wait, You, You!” I hear shriek out, my heart drops, I turn around, nervous again. It’s the skinny guard, he’s stood up from his chair, he locks his eyes to mine, extends his arm rigidly, cocking it upwards, then unveils big thumbs up and relaxes into a cool smile. Perhaps, I will like it here.