His name is Derek Smith and he’s a high school English teacher at Morgan Park Academy on the south side of Chicago. Before that he taught outside of Boston and inside Beirut. Before that he was in the Peace Corps. And before that we became friends in the Fall of 2001 when we took Philosophy of Religion (PHIL 241) together at UIC.
- St. Augustine
We’ve been great friends since we worked through St. Augustine’s Confessions. So I suggested that he advertise his book reading on Saturday the 19th at Morgan Park Academy by posting an excerpt here. I suggested a part starring me, but I guess you’ll have to buy the book for that. Instead, you get the preface…
“When you get to a fork, take a right.” That was it. She estimates it takes six hours to walk to her place.
I waved to a few villagers while leaving, but as I reflect and glance at my watch, realize I haven’t seen anyone in the last four hours. This is all the more bizarre since I’m on a heavily trafficked trekking route. Sure, it isn’t tourist season, but one covers a lot of ground in four hours, and it begins to feel peculiar.
Unfortunately, there is no way to contact her other than simply arriving. There are three landline phones in my village and none, as far as I know, in hers. There is no cell phone coverage here either. I haven’t even thought of the possibility of not finding her place. Could the fork be subtle, something I might have missed? Was I now only walking further away?
Realizing this possibility, I panic and quickly open my backpack and laugh at how ill-prepared I am. In addition to a change of clothes, my hand feels the edges of a book I chose to bring. My younger self as a Boy Scout would have been disappointed.
Farrah must have given more directions when she visited last month to plan this three-day seminar that would begin tomorrow.
I scrape my boots into the dirt for a moment, recalling our planning session. She is as loquacious as anyone I’ve ever met, interjecting stories about everything from sexual escapades of locals out in the fields to joking, half in earnest, about being in love with her boss. She brings such a wealth of information that I doubtlessly had chosen the wrong moment to miss out when she gave directions. Farrah has never spoken only one sentence about anything before, so why just something about a fork? A six-hour walk in the Nepali Himalayas constitutes more than that one line I remembered.
I am not lost as much as I am unsettled by this conclusion.
This isn’t the only regrettable moment. Only an hour into the walk, I darted across loose rocks in an attempted shortcut only to drop my water bottle. I watched it ricochet off jagged points, reverberating throughout the vast, open valley until it reached the riverbed. Besides the obvious necessity of having clean water, many of us revered and took comfort in these Nalgene water bottles if only because we took them everywhere. I stop. It only took a minute to skid down to the valley below, but I expend more energy and time to climb up and around the detours left by the swollen river — all because it was more convenient to store it in the outside pocket of my backpack.
I shake my head in disbelief over my stupidity, past and present, but remorse won’t help so I resume walking. Signs would help, just an arrow chalked alongside a rock.
My confidence wanes even further as I climb more than a thousand feet after identifying what must have been a fork in the path. Each plateau promises more climbing and never a sign of reassurance.
It’s hard not to sound too hyperbolic. It wasn’t being lost and being unable to find shelter. At the worst, I figure, I could retrace my steps home. I turn around and look back. The mountains cause sunlight to disappear long before it actually sets, and I wager that darkness would fall before I could reach home.
Absolute darkness alarms me most of all. The previous month I had dined with my school principal and, as soon I left, realized I had forgotten my flashlight at home. I could hardly see my own hand in front of me, so I used the crescent moonlight both to navigate me home and then to read the padlock numbers on my door. It had been hard enough walking home in my own village, a short, familiar distance, and now for the moment I’m left wondering if I might have to return home. Would following a river at night for guidance be an excellent or terrible idea?
It is anticlimactic to transition, then, to my arrival at Farrah’s village beyond the plateau some six plus hours after leaving. She lives on the top floor of a hotel, and I collapse on her bed after giving her a huge hug.
“I thought I took a wrong turn,” I tell her, embarrassed.
“When?” she inquires, confused. “I gave you directions.”
She listens to my pathetic tale but thinks little of it. She smiles, gives some reassuring words about my safe arrival. “Besides,” she adds, “we have a training to give.”
Okay, she might not have said that last cheesy bit. Both of us share the same job description as Peace Corps Volunteers, that of Teacher Trainers. We serve as teachers our first year but create and host, as the name implies, series of trainings for teachers the second year. Farrah is in her second year and I am in my sixth month. The next three days will be a good gauge of my abilities and my future role. Three months of training and then two years in my village — I go to bed that night relieved, but apprehensive knowing this is my foreseeable future.
The training is like any feel-good Peace Corps story, helping locals in some developing country. My particular contribution is limited at this training. I’m surprised that I am able to communicate anything at all. Seven months prior I could barely locate Nepal on a map.
The training completes, and I walk back to my village. I teach for a few days before taking my first vacation, a trip to surprise my best friend that would take two full days to complete. I didn’t imagine it to be a permanent vacation, and that I would never live in those mountains again.
Nick: That’s it?
What do you mean?
N: Just all of a sudden you left Nepal?
Like everyone else.
N: No — I mean the way you’re telling the story.
What’s wrong with it?
N: Don’t be all accusatory. You asked for help. And that’s the wrong question. It’s more questioning why you chose to tell the story that way.
Again, what’s wrong with it?
N: Here you have set up a unique situation. How many people have even been to Nepal? But there you were, not even vacationing, but actually living there, way up in the mountains. How high were you?
More than two miles above sea level.
N: That adds some realism to it. I mean, you have a solid, captivating moment there — and then you just let it drop, as if you were tired of telling the story.
It’s simply an opener.
N: Right, but you have to sell it! Why don’t you take some liberties? Meet some shepherd or someone along the way. Nearly fall off the mountain or balance precipitously on something. Add a little bit of danger rather than just inconvenience. “Oh no, my water bottle” is hardly invigorating, especially on the first page.
This sounds dangerously like the plot of some John Krakauer investigation.
N: Name dropping already? You really do need my assistance.
Hear me out. Not too long ago Greg Mortenson published his own memoir, Three Cups of Tea, a best seller for years. Mortenson built schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, promoting education for girls. However, the book wasn’t without controversy. John Krakauer, an author himself, investigated and questioned the veracity of several of Mortenson’s claims. He ultimately published a retort called Three Cups of Deceit.
N: Good title. You could have used that. So My Teacher Wrote a Book? Really?
Yes, well beyond what he considers to be dubious claims of bookkeeping, of timelines and of overall honesty, Krakauer doubts that the opening chapter of Three Cups of Tea ever occurred.
N: The real truth being that you never went to Nepal at all?
Krakauer states that the story of Mortenson becoming lost, finding himself in some random Pakistani village, and promising to build a school was fictional, at least in the town he said it occurred.
N: Let me get this straight. You think that somebody’s going to inspect your stories here? That’s rather pretentious. How many schools did you build?
No, it’s not that. It’s merely to emphasize the desire to tell a good story without the insertion of “based on a true story” that takes creative licenses to sell more books or to make for a better tale.
N: You had better have a damn good story if you’re telling it straight.
No pressure there. Let’s make a deal. I’ll tell my story and you can help me out whenever I need assistance.
N: I was going to do that anyways, but if it makes you feel better thinking we have an agreement, so be it. I just hope I’ll receive co-authorship on this, as I anticipate having a lot to say.
Thanks for the vote of confidence.
N: I’m just messing with you. All I really care about is the royalties I’ll receive.