As a child born and raised in the Rocky Mountains in the USA, I recall my Iranian grandfather's advice to me. "If you get lost, go downhill, and follow the stream." I felt safe with these few words. All would be well, I concluded, if I go downhill and follow the stream.
Only as an adult did I think how odd such comfort was. Certainly, my grandfather was an old hand in the mountains of northern Iran, yet he also had been an army general and the times in his life when he was the most up the creek, he was never in the mountains and there was never a stream nearby.
One day, as a member of a team inspecting Iran's eastern border with Pakistan—because part of the border is a river that periodically changes course—my grandfather was alone and in the desert when his Jeep's radiator overheated. He spied along the dry horizon a tree, and hiding in it, a Baluch tribesman. He went to him and asked for water. The man disappeared and returned with water from some mysterious source along with an armful of grass, which he dropped in front of the Jeep. "If your animal needs to drink, he'll be hungry, too."
My grandfather loved telling that tale. It ennobled the tribesman as much as it revealed the existence of people leading traditional lives that modern technology had not touched.
During World War II, Russians held him as a prisoner of war. Two years after his release, the British detained him and other young, educated Iranian nationalists and placed them in a camp to keep watch on any potentially dissident types. Inspired by Gandhi next door, he became a hunger striker to protest foreign occupation.
A few years after the war, when the world was rebuilding itself, my grandfather backed Mossadegh, striving for an independent, nationalized Iran, not one playing the role of world oil puppet. When Mossadegh's leadership failed, my grandfather was quietly retired.
His life had not been an easy one, but he had made the most of it, always seeking the right paddle, not the easiest paddle, for the boat and for the creek.
Trekking one day in northeastern Spain, near Soria, west of Zaragoza, I got lost. I had hoped to find a local bus to the nearby village of Garray where stood the famous Celtic stronghold, Numancia, an archaeological ruin dating to 134 BCE.
No bus was forthcoming. I started walking, figuring that if I followed the Duero River nearby, I'd arrive in Garray and then Numancia. I passed through undisturbed beech, pine, and oak forest. Only once did I see another person, a fisherman hip deep in the river with his rubber boots, casting his line, oblivious of me.
Two and a half hours later, Numancia's hilltop stood before me. It told the story of the famous last stand. In 134 BCE, the Celtic-Iberian Arevaci had managed, through determination, strategy, and fierceness, to hold out against Roman domination for years. But the Romans built a wall all around their hilltop and slowly caged them in and cut off their water. After so many years of resistance, they weakened and began to die. Knowing that life as Roman slaves was worse than death, the Numantines set fire to their homes and killed themselves. Spanish school kids today still learn about Numancia. It instills a national message about perseverance and holding out through hard times.
I returned to Garray. I waited an hour for a bus that villagers told me was coming. It never did.
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