The Magic Freedom Bus seemed to be bringing mild weather and clear skies wherever it went. Though Florida had seen a freeze the week before, as we rolled into Jacksonville the temperature normalized into the sixties and low seventies during the day. Here we would stay with Tamara and her husband Bobby who hosted Nasrin a few years ago when SOLACE for children brought some of the children to the U.S. for medical attention. It was a great reunion for Nasrin. Tamara has a lot of cats and a dog so once again the children got to experience the love and care Americans shower upon their pets. It has been an unsung pleasure to watch as the children develop from fear or distaste to curiosity to adoration in their interactions with pets along the way. At several locations there was a lap dog, which really sealed the deal. Lida asked if we could purchase one and bring it back to Kabul with us, and Mohsan could hardly be seen without carrying one of the critters around in his arms.
It was a time to band together, recuperate at Tamara’s, so we stayed close to home, walked around the water and looked across at the lights of Jacksonville. I had some bus maintenance runs to make, shopping, etc. We got a call from the host family that had taken care of Mohsan when he had come to the U.S. with Solace, and so we had yet another great reunion. The joy and love elicited by these children is universal. Even people that experience but an afternoon with them feel torn to say good-bye. Thus, to see them visit with folks that had never thought they’d see them again was quite a treat.
On Thursday January 19th we arrived at the Fort Wilderness Campground serving Disney World. I got a text from my brother asking if we’d seen the President yet. I didn’t realize Obama was on that day visiting the Kingdom. The good weather continued to follow us. At the gate the kind manager gave us two fast passes to enter rides immediately. After hitching the bus to its site and streatching my legs I heard Mohsan yelling from a distance. He had already found the swimming pool: heated and only one meter deep all the way around with a waterslide. Could it have been more perfect for the situation? All six children got into their swimming clothes and we made way for a three-hour session with water. The three littler ones could somewhat swim, but my three leadership girls could not even float. I was busy trying to remember how to teach swimming, but they figured things out better on their own. The anticipation of swimming had mounted every mile southward, and the children were not disappointed.
That night I prepared shish-kabab. I asked Mohsan and Eraj to make a fire for me. When I stepped out of the bus there they were stoking a brilliant fire in the middle of the woods. Ooops! I directed them to the grill in the sand pit area and we started again. Night descended and we suddenly heard explosions in the distance. “I thought we left Kabul?” was the joke. It was of course the nightly fireworks display over the castle at Disney. Our anticipation was further hightened as a woman came by distributing Mickey balloons and the makings for s’mores. We all settled into the bus to watch a movie and sleepy eyes finally overwhelmed us. Hala and Lida get the double bunk above the driver’s seat. Maria and Frishta get the double that comes out of the breakfast nook, Nasrin gets the single from the settee and I sleep with the two boys in the queen sized bed at the aft portion of the bus. It is snug, but we are getting used to it. It is our home.
We didn’t have to drive to the park. A boat ride from the camp to Magic Kingdom was a perfect way to begin the day, but things didn’t look good once we arrived. Both Space Mountain and Splash Mountain were out of service, and the Railroad Coaster was closed for the winter. It was turning into the most anticlimactic moment ever, as we wandered back and forth and the children donned faces of disappointment and boredom. I was the frustrated father searching the map for something fun. We took a kiddy ride that lasted a minute, and I thought all was lost. Then Nasrin suggested we do the “scary thing”, so we made way for the haunted mansion. This was impressive for its technological ingenuity, so some of our energy was salvaged. After a few more of the less than extraordinary attractions we had lunch. Word got out that Space Mountain had opened, so we made a beeline across the park once again. We used our first fast pass and got right on. None of us were prepared for that ride. Frishta just screamed, one pitch, on note, one volume level, from the first drop to the last turn. It was truly, happily, terrifying. I felt like I had been through ten chiropractic sessions.
The day just got better and better. Splash mountain opened and this was equally saticfying for all. We visited almost all the attractions, and we still had one fast pass left. It was universally decided we would get a pass for Splash in an hour and use our last pass on Space in the meantime. So it was we did both two times. Then the light parade and finally the amazing light show on the castle followed by the children’s first experience of fireworks. I was a happy dad.
Florida’s palms and turquoise skies and embracing warmth enveloped us as we made our way further and further south. Next stop: Terry Cardwell’s in Jupiter. Terry had sponsored orphanages and children for several years and this was going to be her reward: an invasion upon her apartment by our mobile parwarishga!
This would be the one place we spend almost a week. For the rest of the journey it would be three-day stints. Terry and her partner Steve were up to the task. It was an amazing time of bonding between a huge AFCECO supporter and the children, a joining of hands that made the abstract real. There was a pool and nearby was the ocean. I got all the children as well as Nasrin into the waves for their first time. Though the waves were miniscule they were nonetheless exciting. At times I had three and four children clamoring on top of me for safety. On the beach they discovered the joy of shell collecting, and the serenity of walking along the shore for a mile, dreaming. In the midst of this visit we drove down to West Palm Beach where another sponsor, Millie, had arranged for a presentation and fundraiser at a professional croquet club. We decided to wear our Afghan garb for this. I admit I really just wanted a photo of children in their colorful traditional clothes playing croquet. The event was not heavily attended but those who were there were mesmerized by the children and their presentation. We raised $2,100 and a few more sponsored children.
It is evident that getting people to come out to another event dealing with Afghanistan is not as easy as it once was. Americans are showing they are “Afghanistan weary”. In promoting these events we have to try and get the message out that here is something quite extraordinary and quite different, because every single presentation we have made the audiences are emotive, often in tears, excited, motivated and shaking their heads saying, “There should have been a hundred people here to see this…”
It was a wonderful visit with Terry and Steve. A lot of laughter. I was able to spend some work time getting things into place for the rest of the trip, and to do some writing. We were able to continue our English classes as well. Hala, Maria, Lida and Nasrin all learned how to ride a bike, with only minor injuries. On one day Lida’s sponsor Jeanne arrived from West Palm. She brought the girls for some shopping and lunch and yet another wonderful connection was made between our friends and the reality of the effect they have on real children making real change in Afghanistan. One evening we had a Skype video call to the orphanage in Kabul with Andeisha and several of the children. It was soooo good to see them all. We all miss them so much.
All too soon it was time to load the bus and continue to the next stop. Tears and hugs. These hellos and good-byes are mounting up, but the love and inspiration these children leave in their wake more than makes up for the heartache of departure. Across the way awaited the Gulf Coast, and Zarghuna, a woman who was raised in Kabul and married a tall American named Ron that worked for USAID back before the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Zarchuna is cousin to the great Ahmad Zahir. We would meet her at the high school where she teaches ESL. In typical Afghan fashion she met us in the parking lot with roses for everyone. Without a moment to spare we were whisked to the school library where Nasrin led a one-hour presentation. The students were visibly moved and even applauded. This was the first time the older girls got to present to their peer group. The confidence they gained from such an experience was evident. Many things surpise the students we meet, but it always makes them sit up in their chairs to hear Lida or Hala or Maria answer the inevitable question that is some faxcimile of “Would you like to live in America?”
“I live in Afghanistan. I want to help my people, my family. It is my home.”
Zarghuna had really done her pre-planning. The next day we visited beaches and then had an interview with a news reporter. This was followed by a formal presentation in her home to about forty of her friends. Among them were two neighbors I had known growing up in Southbury, CT. The Forsts and their daughter and son in law who were close friends in high school years walked in from my past like a strange mirage. What a small world! It was so good to share with them the work I am doing, and to re-connect with dear memories. The home presentation always seems to work out right. Food is pleantiful, and everyone is relaxed. Lida gave her best presentation to date, her English improving by leaps and bounds. We sang our songs and Nasrin gave a new version of her talk. Toward the end I was pulled into the fray and asked to give the story of my entrance into the AFCECO world. I became slightly emotional as I recalled some of the old stories. I periodically glanced at Zarghuna standing in the kitchen, and I could see her joy and pride in being able to share her world, her people, her culture with all her American friends. All Afghans miss their homeland. It is visceral.
The following day Ron and I drove two cars down to the Everglades where we rode airboats into the mangroves, came up close and personal with a ten-foot gator, some racoons and a manatee. I had to order Frishta to sit in her seat as she danced about the boat risking a fall into the jaws of the hungry reptile. Touring the country with six absolutely fearless children is sometimes a bit of a challenge. That evening we visited Siesta beach near Sarasota, a wide and powdery white sand beach where an army of hand drummers were pounding their rhythms. I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed the children and led them out front for a good old-fashioned pseudo-hippie-African-Afghan dance. I called for a recovery room afterwards. The sund sank low and off we went for pizza and The Beauty and the Beast in 3D. A full day, and yet more experiences for the children to tuck away into their journals.
Zarghuna counted out the checks, another $3,700. We are now over $12,000 for the trip. Somehow, I trust, we will reach the hundred thousand mark by the time we get on a plane March 18th.
Hugs and kisses and yet another farewell. It would be farewell to Florida, too. Now we must turn our gaze west, and the great expanse of this country, this experiment in Democracy. So many more events, people to meet, experiences await us. To all we have touched and who have blessed our hearts, we thank you, and to all who await our arrival, get ready!