In the land of longevity, I eat apricots with every meal and drink curdled goat’s milk. The sweetness of the fruit mixes with the sour tang of the milk, a confusion of taste that I carry on my tongue. The golden orbs are everywhere in this small Pakistani town, hanging above my head at the outdoor table where I have my dinner, piled in slatted wooden crates fresh along the roadside, or dried and muddy orange in the cloudy plastic bags of market vendors. They cast their pink-tinged blush, they rosy the craggy and uninviting terrain. I am twenty years old, the farthest I’ve ever been from my home on the west coast of the United States, and newly married to a native of this land. The anxiety that has plagued me throughout my travels is somehow gone here, too small to be heard among the steep mountains, prickly shrubs, and flinty, wool-swathed people. In this place, I know more about what I am not than what I am, and I find this oddly comforting.
Others come to the boarding house along the ancient Karakoram Highway where I stay. The dirt roads that seem empty and vast belie the numbers of people passing through. Men and women both foreign and domestic, traveling for adventure, working for local NGOs, conducting research on the Hunza people’s unique culture and lifestyle for their universities, studying their preternaturally long lives. Cracking open a world that holds fewer and fewer mysteries. I, too, am here for this purpose.
We congregate—the young, the educated, the optimistic—with our lives ahead of us, collecting experiences to be retold later in hipster coffee shops and swanky wine bars in the United States and Europe. In the common room of the boarding house, someone brings a pipe, loads it with hashish, and passes it around. I catch a whiff of the acrid smoke as I take the pipe and hand it to the blond woman on the left of me with a blue-flowered dupatta slung casually around her neck. I am separate from these others, from their laughter, their easy bodies draped over cushions. I don’t like how the hashish makes their lids heavy and their voices sluggish. I have a paranoid mind—panic is my default state, and I never know if drugs will free me or trap me in that terrifying place. So, I abstain. My husband, who is Pakistani and a poet, fits in well with these travelers. They surround him, and he is wrapped in their fascination, like the beautiful but utilitarian wool scarves made by the Hunza people.
I think back to Karachi, to the high-walled home of my husband’s university friends. In their backyard, which they call a garden, a bush named raat-ki-rani grows. Queen of the Night. The flowers of this bush release an intoxicating jasmine scent, but it blossoms only at night. It’s beauty is both alluring and dangerous—the strong perfume attracts venomous snakes who conceal themselves under the low branches. Like the snakes, I, too, want to curl my body under the green branches and look up at a sky shielded by snowdrift-colored blooms.
There are paths in this world that hold timeless lessons. This highway, once called the Silk Road, is one of them. Already, I know that many things are beautiful, and many things are dangerous, and I often don’t know the difference between them.
I leave the gathering, the warm light, the blue-black smoke curling in the rafters like the bodies of djinn slowly waking. I walk outside, under a dark sky filled with stars that care nothing for conversation, or fear, or loneliness.
I unfurl to the night. I wish for flowers and hidden snakes.