“Look at the map. This dirt road may be a shortcut. We’ll avoid the main road and traffic, and maybe we’ll save a couple of kilometers.”
The sun is climbing over the horizon, the birds are up, and farmers on horses wave to us. The soft green rice paddies create the illusion of a morning hike out in nature, away from people and noise. We haven’t walked a trail like this for many months.
It sounded like a good option at 6 a.m.
“Ok. Let’s try it.”
Along the way, we admire sunflowers, talk with rice farmers and see wild dogs (jackals, maybe) run into the woods. We watch cows graze, say hello to shepherds and scare a lame and blind horse who was surprised to hear us crunching the grass and dried soil.
When the road rises up
Then, life does a 180 turnaround.
By 9:30 a.m., the sun roasts us and the humidity from the rice fields chokes us. There’s no shade anywhere, no breeze to cool our skin. Only suffocating heat. We lay down under the leaves of a bush. It is an unsatisfying rest. We are hotter and lazier than before.
The water in our bottles tastes like warm rust, the taste of pipes from the mosque we stopped at before discovering this road patted down by tractors. I joke, “I hope someone is waiting for us at the end of this and offers us ice cream! Ice cream would be even better than finding a coin!”
The water crossings deflate us, too, stealing precious drops of energy.
The first one came early when we were still in love with the romantic idea of a nature hike. It was a shallow stream that formed a wide pool where the road dipped. I took off my boots and walked across in my Crocs, the second pair of shoes I carry for these moments and rest-day walking. Lluís got lucky just as he started to unlace his boots. Someone we saw a couple kilometers back came by and Lluís hopped on the back of his motorcycle.
The second water crossing was more annoying. There was no easy way around it, and we hadn’t seen anyone else in a long stretch. No one was coming to help us this time. Lluís went first, with his regular shoes, hoping to use patches of downed reeds as landing bases.There was no land under the reeds. Just water. His feet got soaked, and he slipped in the mud, ripping his pants at the knee.
My attempt across was even worse. I put my Crocs back on and took a step. My foot sunk, and mud swallowed my ankle . I planted my other foot, and that foot got trapped, too. It was impossible to move, and the idea of a quick crossing vanished.
There was only one choice: go forward, I lifted my back foot. It slipped out of my shoe, and I could feel my shoe sink a little deeper. There was no way I was leaving that shoe behind. With all the force I could muster, I put my foot back into the mud-filled shoe and yanked my shoe and foot up and through the calf-high water. I swayed myself one more step forward. Four or five steps later, with herculean effort, I reached the other side. Thick mud dripped down my legs. I scooped up a handful of water near the edge to clean myself off. I wished I was more like the tadpoles I saw trying to return to a normal life after giants disturbed them with heavy footsteps.
The third water crossing was a slow running river, shallow in parts, but wide enough to stop us for a while as we mapped out a route. The best way across was straight from where we we standing. The rocks to our right weren’t an option. They were too far apart to jump safely and dryly.
Lluís, delusional in the sun, cracked. This was one of those rare moments when exhaustion beat him. He wasn’t taking his shoes off. No way. “I’m walking back to that house we saw, and will meet you on the road.” The asphalt road we were rejoining was 30 meters in front of us. The house was about 500 meters back, down a grassy path.
Delusional in the sun, I watched him walk away. I couldn’t convince him that it was easier to cross, and would take five minutes to put this aggravating detour behind us.
I took off my shoes again, put the other ones on and waded into the river. I let the cool water relax me. I stopped walking in the middle of the river, and for a couple seconds pretended I was swimming in the sea. It was the most refreshing moments of the morning.
On the river bank, thinking about how our morning got away from us, I lace up my shoes and sighed, glad that this stretch of the day’s walk was over. I walked towards the house where I expected to see Lluís.
My eye catches something glimmering in the gravel. It’s our first coin of the day, a small 250 rial, the denomination I was missing from my pile of coins. I think of coins as lucky signs from the universe and our ancestors that we are walking the right path. “Welcome back to the right road,” is what this coin said to me. I imagine my mom and Lluís’ grandmother, and our other angels, having a good laugh about our morning expedition.
Lluís and I meet, sweat falling off our foreheads. We slump down on the curb. Only 14 kilometers done by 11 a.m., and we are depleted. We must look more pathetic than usual to the father and son fixing their front gate behind us. They invite us into the shade. The wife and daughter rush toward us with ice water and return a few seconds later with two cups of vanilla ice cream each!
“Ice cream!” My smile returns. Someone was waiting for us at the end of the dirt path with ice cream! Angels appear in mysterious ways along our walk, and sometimes they bring us treats. “Thanks, Mom,” I whisper in my head, sure that she helped arrange this chance meeting and snack.
The family is Iranian, and their hospitality doesn’t end with water and ice cream. Before we know it, we are taking showers, munching on fruit, sipping tea, eating lunch and napping in their home.
It’s a sad moment when we have to leave such a nice family, but we still have about 14 kilometers to walk before sunset.
We put the dirt road behind us, and with our energy stores refilled, we set out in the late afternoon sun, on the street that will eventually reconnects to the main road we have been walking on for two months.
Kilometers slip by, easier now that we have concrete, sidewalks and stores buzzing with refrigerated refreshments.
A man on a moped stops to chat. He tells us to come to his shop on the main road. “You can have ice cream,” he says zipping away.
The invitation for another ice cream quickens my steps. It’s cooler now than this morning, but still, it’s summer in North Iran, which means it’s sweltering.
Sitting in the middle of a group of men curious about how we landed in front of this shop, I ignore their questions and block out the racing traffic noise around me. I savor every melting drop of the ice cream sliding down my throat. It’s a zen moment. It’s five-coin moment, the value I ascribe to ice cream given to us on a hot summer afternoon.
Two ice creams in one day! It took everything in us to reap these little rewards. Our shortcut didn’t save us many kilometers. Instead, it paved the way for unexpected kindness. And, that makes every hard step forward less muddy.