Young Traveler—Gold: A Writer in Paris: On the Road of Vision Seekers

by Haifa Mahabir

Into the Heart of Darkness

You awake. The moon’s hue cascades the walls of your room in a whitewash, that certain shade of blue. A draft leaves your blinds rustling; the sound rapid like the flutter of insect’s wings. You hear the rise and fall of your own breath.

Shamans of the Amazon believe it’s possible for spirit entities to attach themselves to the body; that they manifest themselves in the form of anger, fear, sorrow. That you can travel to a place and these entities, this negative energy, will bind to you.

It’s only when you face the depths of your darkest fears that you can release them.

City of Light

Rue St. Jacques slices through the heart of Paris’ Latin Quarter, where its centuries old cobblestones and narrow corridors remind you that this is Paris’ oldest street; literally a road that led to Rome. The light here lingers: at daybreak reaching its arms along the banks of the Seine; at dusk, its stormy seas receding from its streets.

Streets stained with the stench of urine as it mixes, stales the air; alive with the blare of sirens and buzz of scooters; the grinding brakes of buses and bells of the cathedrals; the pounding and thunder of the construction workers pillaging slabs of concrete. The dust and heat and plumes of exhaust and fumes consume these Paris streets.

In a classroom above Rue St. Jacques you sit across from your teacher, who you refer to as the Vagabond King; the travel writer from Kansas who’s been compared to the likes of Jack Kerouac, your literary hero. He casually leans back, a leg lazily crossed, his brown shirt faded from use, jeans frayed at the ends. With one arm he stretches at the long day and passes a hand through sandy brown hair, and glances at the time on his blackberry. He watches you with intent, and nervously, your eyes wander the room, looking to the window, peeking below to the square opposing the church of the Val de Grace; the pigeons bathing in its fountains, passers-by with fresh loaves of baguettes, a typical early-evening observation.

When your teacher speaks, his voice is inviting, his brown eyes sort of wide, intense. Up close he has freckles, you can see the lines in his smile and the corners of his eyes. You’ve come unprepared of any stories. You’re having doubts, not sure about where you are and where you’re going. You’ve wondered when it is that you cross the threshold of student, and become a writer. Is it when you’ve been published? Or when you’ve received a degree that tells you so? Is it when a real writer calls you one, too? He tells you, “You know, you shouldn’t have come to Paris to be a writer. You came here to write.”

And, you know he’s right, but you can’t help but feel discouraged. You feel out of your league. You came to Paris because you want to write, you want to put into words the images fashioned against your digital canvas of the places you’ve seen, the faces you’ve met. But, the last 17 months have changed your life and the person you are, the person you see; and you anticipate the inevitable failure, because that’s what you do.

Tropical Fever (Found on a Paris Street)

You hear a scuffle three stories above a Paris street; the unmistakable friction of a Parisian man in a fluster; he’s shouting to the gods. In the moment that you draw your gaze upwards to meet his shrill yell, his lanky arms fling a thing over the top floor apartment balcony.

It’s a large black duffel, and it’s headed right for you, but you don’t move, only watch it torpedo towards you, blocking out the light of your sun, and it crashes to the ground inches from your feet. Again you look up, and the man is shaking his fists in the air, still yelling in defiance; loose papers like windblown sails of leaves fall around you; unopened letters. You reach down to an open journal of dates and addresses, and leaning back up with its blown pages in your hands, an arm reaches over you, grabs it from your grasp. The man is black, dressed in a faded blue or grey suit; he slides the journal inside the breast pocket of his jacket and throws his duffel into the backseat of a waiting taxi van, and in moments he’s gone and you’re left standing. All around you people are lingering in their doorways, leaning against the iron confines of their balconies, watching. You turn to walk away and a breeze you can’t trace walks with you, and it catches a last loose paper, and you follow, finally stomping it to the ground.

The page has been ripped out of a notebook; it’s folded into fours and dog-eared at its edges. There are at least two different types of handwriting; three different colors of ink and pencil. Bicycle tracks in a corner. Your footprint in the other.

Tropical fevers and their antibiotic counterparts. First on the list: Malaria. You flash back.

Land of a Thousand Hills

The road from Ruhengeri is an expansive dirt passage that snakes through Rwanda from the capital city of Kigali, to Ruhengeri, a village bordering the Congo on the country’s northwestern border.

The road wanders sinuous curves beneath jungle canopies; along it passing countless genocide memorials. Traveling further into the mountains, away from the concrete rows that dot and line the low valleys, homes are constructed of mud with roofs of straw. Women and children walk alongside the dirt road, carrying large buckets of water and heaps of bamboo on their heads. Often, their feet are bare, clothes ragged and tornmany of the children naked. There are men and women working in the fields, the sun ablaze in the perspiration on their foreheads and dark faces; sweat falling like beads of rain, running over the lines in the muscles of their backs. Their eyes glimmer in the ardent glow, their breath emanating in waves of heat that echo through the valleys.

The span of a day leaves you witness to children starving, their bellies swollen with parasites. Orphans of the genocide left to care for orphans of disease and the effects of poverty. At the orphanage where you’ve volunteered to share creative writing and photography, many of the children are dying of HIV and AIDS, and they don’t know it. You bear sight of a young girl pinned against a wall by a handful of men. You meet another who you’re convinced came to you in your dreams.

These images begin to stalk your every breath, and your fear of the place becomes too much to bear. In hours you’ve been exposed to a human condition, a landscape both more beautiful and horrifying, with more images than most people will see in their lifetimes; a place darker than the farthest recesses of your mind.

You were supposed to stay in Rwanda 21 days. You fled in 21 hours.

You’re convinced when you return from the journey that a child you passed on the road from Ruhengeri is haunting you. The doctors say it’s the psychological effects of malarone, the antiobiotic you’d been taking to protect you from the malaria.

It’s been 17 months.

Fear is a Sickness

You begin to feel the same fear creeping in. The fear of failure. That you’ve made a mistake in coming to Paris. That you aren’t a writer; that somehow you aren’t good enough, and you don’t deserve to be here. In the square of the Val de Grace, discouraged and wanting to flee this place as you’d fled before, you cry to a friend. He sits coolly sits back leaning against one arm, legs crossed; he puffs on a cigarette and looks at you sort of confused.

“So?”

You think to yourself: what do you mean, “So?” So, I want out. I want to get the hell out of here. I don’t belong here.

“You’re not really making this easy for me.” You say this, and he only looks at you blankly.

“Why should I? You start something – you have to finish it.”

Words you’d heard a thousand times before, but they never struck you this way. It was effortless; he’d never considered that not finishing something you’d started was even an option.

You stay.

Later, you pull out the tattered leaf of tropical fevers that you’d tucked between the pages of your journal, and you study it. You can’t help but wonder who that man was, why his things were being thrown so dramatically from the top story window of that building. Where he had been, and where he was going; what you were doing there in that moment. You imagine he’d been studying tropical diseases in the remote jungles of Africa; that somehow his research led him to Paris, perhaps a breakthrough.

But those notes wouldn’t be scribbled on a page torn from a notebook. He’d hardly noticed you, and you know he will never give you a second thought, but you’ll always wonder.

It’s not until you found the prescription that you realize you’ve been sick.

The Garden

Having abandoned the classroom, you sit with your teacher in the school’s garden. You’re on to something now, showing him the tattered leaflet, describing to him the black duffel incident. “I’m sort of amazed you hung on to this thing,” he says, watching you as you fumble with the paper beneath the tips of your fingers. “That’s the sign of a writer.” You look up, smiling. You’re grateful for his patience.

In another moment, your teacher having gone, you’re distracted by an essay found in your National Geographic. It chronicles an adventurer’s journey into the Peruvian Amazon to be cured by shamanic healing through ayahuasca.

A man, mid-forties, sitting on a bench near you strikes up conversation. He seems to be having an existential moment, and questions you about your travels and your fears, to which you begin to exchange stories. To your amazement, and his, you learn that he’d participated in a ayahuasca healing ceremony earlier that week, in London. You’re skeptical of the setting for such an event, and he’s skeptical of his results, so you hand him the article you’d been reading.

You tell him the shamans believe there are different planes of existence, that you exist in all of these realms, and with them so do your demons. To which he replies, “Haifa, we are the creators of our own universe.”

He’s meeting a friend, and as you reach out to shake his hand, his grasp tightens on yours and he twists your arm, exposing a tattoo. You’d gotten it upon returning from Rwanda; the Hindu symbol for ‘Om’. Its meaning: all things. Om is the universe.

The Awakening

Maybe from here you decide that you’re going to begin your life. You’ve given all of yourself and you’ve got nothing else. From Paris you’re going to return to New York, and you’re going to write, and you’re going to fail, and you’re going to accomplish worlds; but you’re going to write, and you’re going to find inspiration moving forward. You aren’t going to look back. You’re going to go back to your life, except your life is going to be changed. Because, in a year you’ll return to Paris, and perhaps in a year, you’ll be ready to face your darkest fears; you’re going to return to Rwanda, on the road to Ruhengeri.


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