True freedom is breathtaking. You look up at the layered blue sky, with clouds shape-shifting endlessly, and then gaze back down at the ground, a mishmash of dirt and greenery. You come to realize an ocean of possibilities exists between this high ceiling and the humble ground. It is a feeling of pure freedom that cannot be usurped.
My young days were filled to the brim with this dosage of freedom. Just the right amount for me to feel that the Earth was not an inaccessible plateau, a logistical hindrance, or an insurmountable distance. In my own ambitious mind, wherever my eye would gaze upon, I could trek there, and so I did. In Oman, a land with hauntingly beautiful mountains that look sharp and uninviting, my playtime was dictated by the hill I wanted to climb. Every day, the routine was more or less the same. Mornings were a necessary confinement: Homeschooling. Being the warden for my little brother and me, my mother would sit with us for an agreed amount of 3 hours. Mathematics, English, and Urdu. Three subjects for three hours. My brother, the fussy one, was learning to count while I did multiplication. He learned the alphabet while I learned to form words, make sentences, and improve my handwriting. These three uncompromising hours of our homeschool were one of the two obstacles between us and our daily dose of pure freedom. Once we were out, we were out.
We lived in a remote part of Oman, a camp-site near the village “Al Waqba”. This camp-site housed engineers, workers, and supervisors. My father was one of the engineers. His work was mainly designing networks of roads in this harsh land and mapping the unmapped valleys. Sometimes, we’d go along with him to his work sites to see giant metal monsters with a bright yellow “CAT” printed on their backs. Some had blades that would slice the harsh terrain, cutting open pathways and making routes. Some dug up Earth and stowed it away into artificial hills of dark brown dirt. Others would lay scathing hot asphalt on the flattened outlines of roads.
“A road has five layers,” my father would often say, his eyes fixed on the black asphalt as it settled on the infant roads.
Seeing these machines work from a distance was always awe-inspiring, the way they fought with Earth itself. Dust and debris flung around as nature and machine contested each other. Workers, who wore hard hats and bright yellow vests, operated these machines. For my brother and me, they were mere tamers of those giant metal beasts.
Our family had a mobile-home allocated to us. My mother termed it a tin box. Oman was as new to her as it was to us. Indeed, anyone would have thought that moving from a concrete two-storey house in Lahore to a “tin can” was a downgrade. The “tin can” looked like a humble dwelling, unflattering from the outside. From the inside, it was a modest house, spacious and luxurious enough for my young self. However, it was the outside world that concerned me more. The camp-site was enveloped by a mountainous country-side, with no signs of civilization. Wherever the eye could see, there were prickly sharp mountain peaks, not stupendously tall, but enough to make a grown man catch his breath at the mere thought of hiking. They were plain, bare, brown mountains, with not a hint of greenery. They were erected from Earth, tall and uncompromising, their feet populated with rocks that had broken from the mountain’s wholeness into their own separate entities. Between these goliaths, there were dried riverbeds. If dug deep enough, these riverbeds would reveal moisture. Perhaps, the terrain’s inhospitality was just a surface level front. If it still carried water beneath, it could still house some life. Scarcer still were date trees and patches of green shrubs. The Omani landscape was semi-arid, but, for us, just the right amount of fun.
However, the afternoon sun was another warden we had to deal with before our eventual bail. It was the second obstacle. We could negotiate with our mother, but there was no negotiating with the sun. In summer, the Omani sun was relentless. It’s sweltering heat, and scorching rays struck the ground and victimized any living thing they touched. Shadows, and shelter were the only refuge for animate objects. The mountains, however, seemed to stare back defiantly. Too proud to seek shelter and too bold to give in, they took the sun’s heat and remained still underneath it, showing no sign of compromise as they were baked eternally by the sun. Any vegetation that was bold enough to grow in their crevices was weeded out by the harsh rays, and the bareness of the mountains remained preserved. Perhaps this was the arrangement between the sun and the mountains.
You defy me, and I will deprive you.
My younger self had no time to reflect on these abstract intricacies. I just waited for the sun to lose its foothold in the sky, descend into a manageable angle, and indulge in my freedom dosage. My brother and I would be granted bail after lunch. We would walk out of the camp-site and into the wilderness, eyeing the possibilities that existed. Adventure was present in all directions. We could find new places to explore, and we could go as far as we’d like, provided we could find our way back. Some days, we would decide on the closest mountain to us. We named it a name I have long forgotten since. It was a modestly tall mountain; perhaps, if I looked at it now, I’d call it a hill. For my small young self, it was an expedition that required sheer will power, an energetic lunch, and my little brother’s cooperation. One of these three requirements was hard to satisfy. Hiking to the top was not a challenging task. We had done it countless times before. Still, my feet would ache when I reached the top, while my brother, the more athletically gifted one, would be preparing to go even further.
Sometimes, we’d vote to go to a ravine (I’d veto occasionally). The ravine, which we termed as “Katti Hui Jaga” (A Cut Place), was around twenty feet of sharp descent. It ran for half a kilometer in length and housed a date farm. We’d sometimes go to the date farm and meet its owner; once, we visited with our father and got baskets of dried dates. But my most vivid recollection of the farm is of its well. I had never seen a well before in my life. It was a square well with no safety walls, just a deep hole in the ground, a dark chasm. I remember losing my courage as I got closer to the well. By the time I crawled to its edge, I lay flat on my stomach, my head peering in the void below. The closer you are to the ground, the less likely you are to lose balance. I was brave enough to look down at the well with the trade-off of losing my courage to stand. Perhaps, it was my first lesson in humility and my first realization that I had a fear of heights.
These two places served as the main attractions for my brother and I. One we’d climb up on, and one we’d climb down to. In between, we lived. Sundown was the arranged time for us to return back to our camp-site. We had no other option but to return, as the mountains that looked so attractive and full of adventure in the light seemed to camouflage in the darkness, hiding themselves. Perhaps they needed rest too. Being stared at all day by two adventure-hungry kids would have been an exhausting prospect, not to mention the sun bombarding its rays continuously. We understood that, I think, and maybe that’s why we’d go back.
Back home, it was dinner, TV, and a rough plan for the next day. Bound by life but boundless in spirit.