It was a trip that was meant to be all about exploring an underappreciated corner of the world and forging new connections. Then, in an instant, everything went wrong.
I sat on a rickety chair, taking little sips of orange juice, gingerly swallowing before the citrus had a chance to sting my bruised mouth. The sun, slowly coming to life over the nearby hills, warmed the cafeteria on a cold spring morning. Mushi – tall, well-built, a descendent of Alexander the Great, he said – dipped a biscuit in his chai. Two elderly men sat next to us, wearing woolen sweaters over their plain salwar kameez. They told me in Urdu that I was one of God's children.
I was in Aga Khan Hospital in Gilgit, a gateway town to Pakistan’s rugged mountains in the northernmost reaches of the country. Here, we were closer to China than to Pakistan’s modern capital Islamabad. Mushi owned a hotel in Karimabad, a scenic village in the Hunza Valley, two hours north of Gilgit. He tore open a packet of biscuits, insisting I eat something, but I still couldn’t. I was too worried about my partner Nathan, who'd been sleeping in an intensive care unit all night. We were still waiting for news on his condition.
I couldn’t stop shivering. My kurta, made for Pakistani summers and now torn and stained with blood, brought no comfort.
A sudden tragedy
The previous evening, our driver Mehboob Bhai (“bhai” or “brother” is a term of respect in Urdu) drove us to Mushi’s hotel, Hunza Lounge, overlooking the riverine valley, for our last day with him. By then, we had spent two weeks together. We walked through old forts and sipped tea with salt. We drove through quaint villages lined with cherry trees in full boom and tip-toed across rickety suspension bridges. We met his family; his wife, three children and his brother. We slept in his home, where each room was fitted with bright red carpets, and the walls were covered with photos of his brothers. Cherry, peach and apricot trees grew in his front garden. Mehboob Bhai had become family and we knew this was going to be one of the hardest goodbyes.
It was the holy month of Ramadan, so after we arrived at the hotel, we invited Mehboob Bhai to our hotel room for his iftar meal, to break his fast. But, this being our final day together, he insisted he wanted to first show us one more thing up at the bazaar on top of the hill. He wore the black scarf Nathan had bought him from a roadside market. Outside the hotel, we took selfies on his phone and promised to stay in touch; he would send us photos of what these valleys looked like in the autumn, he said. We promised to send him photos of the ocean. We got into the vehicle for the drive up the hill.
Suddenly, the edge of the narrow road going up the hill collapsed. Our 4WD rolled downhill and flipped, suspended for an instant over the rocky valley before plummeting. “Oioioi!” Mehboob Bi shouted. He grabbed Nathan’s arm. I thought of Nathan.
When the car finally landed in the valley below, I could hear nothing but my own screams. I saw no one. Blood dripped down my nose, wetting my cotton kurta. I kept screaming. And then: “Zee, are you okay?” It was Nathan. He was somewhere I couldn’t see.
Three strangers pulled me out of the car through shattered glass. They told me I was okay. I saw Nathan sitting on the grass outside, bleeding and helpless. And then I saw Mehboob Bhai. He was silent. “They were thrown out of the vehicle,” someone said. A stranger picked me up. We were taken to a nearby emergency unit.
Later that evening, when I exited an ambulance as we approached a government hospital in Hunza Valley, I couldn’t hold in a scream. A group of men stood by a hospital bed. A human figure was covered head to toe in a white cloth. It was Mehboob Bhai.
I recalled a moment from a few days earlier. We were climbing down a steep, pebbled path that skirted the edge of a glacier. I had trouble finding my footing and mumbled something about how difficult the descent was. “Even if anything happens to me, I’ll make sure you will be alive,” Mehboob Bhai had said.
Saved by strangers
We spent the five days immediately following the accident in a daze at Mushi’s hotel. The world around me, once bright with the magic of traveling somewhere new, crumbled. The same rising peaks that had charmed me felt like a forbidding and alien world. Every morning I woke up lightheaded, a feeling that just intensified when I’d turn to see Nathan’s bruised, swollen body. Outside, from the room’s balcony, I saw distant hills no longer covered in snow. The cherry blossoms were long gone. I sat there for hours, looking at the Hunza River. I ran fingers through my hair, pulling out brittle handfuls in the process.
Before we came here, we had seen a different Pakistan on television – in fact, seeing the real country had been part of the motivation to go in the first place. Growing up in Sri Lanka, I remember seeing news about violence, bomb blasts, and terrorism. When we told our parents we were going to Pakistan, Nathan’s father thought we were joking. My little sister, the most carefree person I know, hugged me tight and told me to be careful.
But now, almost five months after the accident, I first remember the strangers who came to help as soon as the car hit the ground. Over a dozen people ran down the mountain to save our lives. They brought our passports, money, cameras and phones to our hospital beds.
Mushi, who was about to dig into a yak meat burger at the time, raced down the zig-zagging roads to meet us. He sat next to us in the ambulance, took us to the hospital at Gilgit, and slept on a rough wooden bench outside, heedless of the cold. When the doctors finally cleared Nathan and told us that he only had tissue damage which would take some months to recover, Mushi brought us to his hotel and nursed us back to life. He fed us crusty bakery bread soaked in warm chicken soup. He insisted on paying our hospital bills and refused to charge us anything for our extended stay.
In Lahore, when I was still dizzy a week after the crash, our Airbnb host Hilal took me to the hospital for a CT scan and dropped us at the airport for our flight back home. Throughout my stay, I received a flood of calls and messages from strangers who had heard about our accident on the news and social media. Among them were doctors offering their services and army officers asking how they could help. They were people I had never met.
A slower life
Since returning to Sri Lanka from Pakistan, I have deliberately distanced myself from the grim events happening across the world and around me. I call my parents often and talk to my little sister every day. Although his kneecap sometimes hurts, Nathan can finally walk again and is back to his usual wide-eyed self. He’s recently befriended three furry dogs in a nearby countryside cottage. He’s grateful for the new life he’s been given. He says that when he opens his eyes, he sees a new world.
For someone who often multi-tasked in life, I’ve finally learned to mono-task. I take things slow, being mindful about every single task I do. A close friend reminded me that there’s nothing we can achieve by worrying over things we have no control of. When I remember how life flashed in front of my eyes in Pakistan, I hold her advice closer to my heart.
And as for Mehboob Bhai, I like to think he's watching over us from Jannat, the vision of heaven he described on our long drives through the Pakistani countryside. His daughter recently finished her 10th-grade exams. On Facebook, his son still sometimes posts about his father, but at other times, it's a selfie with his friends in the back of a truck.
Reflecting on the fleeting nature of life, Mehboob Bhai once said, “People come and go like the weather. The mountains remain.” But I also think it’s true that there are relationships that can last longer than the weather – longer than a lifetime. Although I cannot show Mehboob Bhai the photos I’ve taken of the ocean, I carry the memories of our fourteen-day trip with me everywhere I go. Whenever I find myself on top of a mountain or in front of a transcendent sunset, I smile and pose. I think of Mehboob Bhai, getting into position and saying, “Bhabi, ek aur tasweer.” “One more photo, sister.”