All posts by jasonontheedge

I am a happy but restless soul. I began my humble life in a traditional Amish community, and have since become a globetrotter. It has been a fascinating but relentlessly exciting journey. Here you will find reflections from the past, current adventures and ramblings of the future. Welcome to my life.

Bosnia…How I came to Love it [Part 2]

Please note that this is written as I experienced it, and as it was related to me.

It was dark. Like really dark, as I padded silently down Maršala Tita Boulevard late in the evening. I had just gotten off the train. Vaguely, I wished that there would be more street lights functioning. From the lights that were burning I surveyed the

Another shelled out house where there once lived a happy family.
Another shelled out house where there once lived a happy family.
A person became used to seeing  ruins.
A person became used to seeing only ruins.

shelled out houses. Some of them were missing the roof and had boards nailed over the windows and doors. Others had only  a wall standing and everything inside in a heap. Still others were reduced to nothing but rubble. Everywhere I looked, everything in sight was riddled with bullet holes. Oh well, it is what it is. I wished there would be some road signs so I can discover my way. But there was no such luck. Quietly I walked down the desolate street, carefully skirting some people sleeping on the sidewalk and vigorously shaking my head no to a few old people who were trying to sell me things. But as luck would have it, when I actually needed to make a left turn the road sign was there, on the corner of a house that was not in ruins. But of course it had a gaping bullet hole squarely through the center of the sign.

Ruined houses and buildings were everywhere.
Ruined houses and buildings were everywhere.

Welcome to Mostar. Bosnia. A beautiful place. But, especially at that time, deeply damaged by the recent war. I had just arrived and was excited to see this place. I stayed in a quaint green and white house perched on the side of a steep hill where an elderly lady managed something of a hostel of sorts. I didn’t see any other guests, but that was okay. She fussed over me as if I were the long-lost grandson. She brought me tea and bread. Oh, and her neighbor Jakob will show me around.

The next morning Jakob showed up bright and early to give me a tour of the city. He about 30 years old and very pleased with the prospect of having something to do. Jakob took me to the top of the hill behind the house where he showed me an old church that was

I wondered who used to live here. What were they like?
I wondered who used to live here. What were they like?

demolished. He explained to me that this church was being rebuilt rock by rock to match the old one exactly. While we walked,  we talked. His slight limp, he explained, came from when he was shot in the leg by a sniper from that hill over there, as he pointed to the top of a hill on the Croatian side. I was in the hospital for a while. But I was shot twice… his voice trailed off. His eyes glazed over with pain. We walked in silence.

He took me to a large cemetery and with tremulous voice explained that this is where the victims of war were buried. Only after the war

The cemetery. Beautiful but morbid.
The cemetery. Beautiful but morbid.

could the monuments be erected. It was now immaculately kept with beautiful white headstones and bright flowers. It was definitely a place of highest honor. Practically worship.

We walked past a nondescript building and he explained that it used to be a mall. Here were the first casualties of war. Two Serb soldiers chased two Bosniaks who escaped to the roof top. When the

The innocent men were thrown off this building to their death.
The innocent men were thrown off this building to their death.

soldiers caught up with them, they threw them to their death instead of arresting them. War began in Mostar.

We walked from the east part of town to the west part. We approached a large structure. Without a second glance I assumed it was a parking garage. Except wait, why would a small town like this have a 6 story parking garage? So I asked,” Is this a parking garage?” Even as the words left my lips, I knew the answer would be no.

What used to be a big bank. Now a shell.
What used to be a big bank. Now a shell.

Jakob looked at me with a hint of a smile. “Why would you think that? It used to be a bank before the war. It was beautiful with blue glass walls. But all the glass was blown out. Now it does look like a parking garage. It’s not legal, but come, let’s go up there. I want to show you something.” It was now the local hang out place for high school kids doing drugs, and for homeless people who needed a roof. Several grizzled old men looked at us strangely as we walked up the stairs. One flight after the next we took to the very top. there was a strong wind as we got toward the top, funneled in through the mountains on either side. The open stairs had no railing and I thought I would surely blow off.

It was a windy day to be walking these stairs.
It was a windy day to be walking these stairs.
Overlooking the city.
Overlooking the city.

It was such a beautiful day with a clear blue sky up there. Birds sang in the late fall sunshine. An occasionally puffy white cloud could be seen. Peace reigned. It felt good to be alive. But only several years before it was so different. As Jakob pointed out to me. He beckoned me over to a corner. “Do you see this hole?” He pointed to a small hole in the concrete wall at the very top of the building. “Now step on these blocks and look out.” I did as I was directed. I stepped on the concrete blocks and gazed out the hole overlooking the town of Mostar. He swallowed hard. His jaws worked. With a slight tremor in his voice he said, “This was one of the sniper points.The hole that you looked out of…many people were

The sniper hole.
The sniper hole.

shot through that hole. See the bullet shells?” Our eyes mutually dropped to the ground. Cold shivers ran down my spine, despite the warm sunshine. Hundreds of rusting bullet shells were scattered around, each one having killed a person.  A person. A real person. A person with a family. A person with a life. A person with a dream. This shell killed a little girl. This one a 12-year-old boy who was desperately trying to get a liter of water back to his widowed mother. This one killed the kind old grandfather that every one loved. As the sniper laughed in glee at watching  flesh and blood explode.

Rusting bullets from the sniper. Objects of death.
Rusting bullets from the sniper. Objects of death.

I felt sick on my stomach. Death. It was so close. I could almost feel it. Gingerly I touched several of the shells. My stomach felt like a cannon ball was inside. My legs felt like lead. In silence we gazed at the offending shells, as a way of respecting those who passed into the next world. Life is so short. It can be snuffed out so fast. Did they even know what happened? What were their last thoughts? Where did they go? Time stood still as Jakob and I stared at the shells. Without a word Jakob and I turned and left. I was relieved that we were on solid ground. Without even meaning to I kept looking to the hills and to the top of the buildings. Am I going to be shot?

The town hall that is not used.
The town hall that is not used.

It was as if we agreed to not look back. Not speak of that building. Instead he showed me a memorial for the Spanish soldiers that were killed in the war when they came to help. Proudly he told me how the King of Spain flew in for the unveiling. He showed me the big beautiful new town hall. The European Union had just built it. They held a beautiful ceremony and had a ribbon cutting. The keys were given to the mayor who locked it and never looked back.

Jakob’s eyes filled with pain again and he got this far away look. “Do you see the city center? I mean, we are right in the middle of the city. Every other city center is bustling with people everywhere.

Evidence of hard times.
Evidence of hard times.

Drinking coffee. Reading newspapers. Playing chess. Talking. Here there is nothing. His voice rose. “Nothing!” It was true. I looked around. We were practically the only people in sight. There was an eerie sense of artificial calm. He kept talking,”It’s because only several years ago we were divided into three sections. Bosniaks,Serbs, and Croats. We were all fighting each other. My father and all my brothers were killed. I was shot twice. How can I go to other parts of the cities and see the people who did this? I can’t! So we just stay in our part of the city. But the city reflects three groups and we won’t mix like that.”

The front line was in this building at one time.
The front line was in this building at one time.

“Come, I want to show you another place. We walked to a shelled out building. We entered and looked up and down the aisle. It was completely beat up. The ceiling was falling down. Sandbags were

Shelled out doorway.
Shelled out doorway.

everywhere.But strangest was the awful stench and the blood smeared inner walls. Jakob explained.”This was the very center of fighting. On the right side of the hall the Bosniaks were holed up. On the left side the Serbs were holed up. They fought. Front lines. Hand

This hallway was the dividing line. Here people died.
This hallway was the dividing line. Here people died.

and tooth. There was a heavy stench that hung in the air. I imagined it to be decomposed bodies. Again, we left silently.

Jakob turned me loose to be on my own. Starving with hunger I made my way to an a restaurant in Stari Grad [Old Town], and sat down in the stone courtyard.

The courtyard. A place of tranquility after my violent morning journey.
The courtyard. A place of tranquility after my violent morning journey.

It was a beautiful setting with the late fall sunbeams dancing through the grape plants. The waiter immediately focused his attention entirely on me-his sole patron. Remembering the words of advice from a young man I had met on the train yesterday I ordered ćevapčići, a stunningly delicious dish of pita bread stuffed with tasty little beef sausages and a pile of fresh

ćevapčići...amazing goodness!
ćevapčići…amazing goodness!

chopped onions. For good measure they threw a heaping pile of disgusting, thin cut, soggy fries on the side. No more had the friendly waiter set the dish down and walked away, than my table was bombarded with cats. There were big cats. There were small cats. There were middle size cats. There were cats of all colors. Between delectable bites of simmering goodness I kept swatting at the cats. It was a losing battle. The waiter stood in the door way grinning. Thoroughly enjoying the scene. An idea crossed my mind. I dropped several

Plague of the cats.
Plague of the cats. Note the fry dropping.

fries on the floor. Boom! All the cats jumped on the floor and fought for the fries. Ahh, this was me, mastering the animal yet again. I dropped fries on the floor every 30 seconds and a dozen cats sat at my feet, shining eyes looking straight up, anticipating the next fry. Even so, I finished the ćevapčići before the fries ran out, so I let a skinny little cat climb onto my plate

She won my heart.
She won my heart.

and eat the remaining fries while we sat in companionable silence. Alarmed, the waiter came running to chase the cat away, but I halted him. I assured him that it is quite okay. He shrugged his shoulder  and walked away, occasionally glancing back, with an air of perplexity

The day went on. I visited the iconic bridge of Mostar. It’s like the most important thing in the city. The old bridge stood for 427 years until it was shelled down by Croat forces in November 1993.

The old bridge.
The old bridge.

At the time it was built it was the highest and widest arch of any bridge in the world and was a renowned wonder of all who saw it. The original architect,Mimar Hayruddin was instructed under the threat of death to design this bridge. He did his best, but he expected it to fall when the scaffolding was removed. He even prepared for his funeral that day. Instead it stood 427 years and it took over 60 shells to bring it down. It took a few years, but a pain staking, awe-inspiring replica was built.

Then I decided to walk up into the hills and look over the city. I walked up the small streets on the east side of town, through the graveyard on the outskirts, climbed through a barbed wire fence and

Heading for the hills.
Heading for the hills.

threaded my way up through the bare mountain side. I climbed way up and sat down next to a cliff, watching the sun slowly set to the west with the last golden sunbeams dancing over Mostar. I could feel that I was going to leave a piece of my heart here. My heart

Peaceful moments.
Peaceful moments.

was full. I had experienced so much today. I had walked through the valleys of pain with my new-found friend and had felt a sliver of his agony. A sliver of his uncertain future. I looked at what he had. I thought of what I had. It wasn’t fair. Not at all. I looked down at the cemetery where  thousands and thousands of victims were buried. Where every day a brokenhearted widow came and kissed a tombstone. Where a father with a bent back came and wept silently over his teenage son whose life was snuffed out in instant. Where a teenage girl came and respectfully planted freshly picked flowers on the graves of her parents, sobbing wondering why life was like this.

Motsar at dusk.
Motsar at dusk.

It wasn’t fair. A hot tear slid down my cheek.

I decided to go spend the evening with Jakob and his friends as they watched a foot ball game while they drank cheap beer and tried to make sense out of life. To show them that I cared. To show them that I embraced their pain. I would walk this road with them. I will be their friend. I got up and started down the mountain side till suddenly my entire body went cold. I had been expressly warned not to go into the hills. Live landmines lay everywhere. Unbelievable. In my anticipation of the over view it had slipped my mind. I stood stock still considering my options. I noticed several dogs running on a thin path. That is what I would do. Follow the dog path. Holding my breath, I resumed my journey.

To be continued…

Bosnia…How I came to Love It [part 1]

I had stayed the night in a smelly, dingy hostel in Split, Croatia. There

Walking to the Zagreb train station.
Walking to the Zagreb train station.

was something about the smell in there that reminded a person of fresh compost, and it was also unusually warm for November, making it a miserable night. But morning came, as it has every day since the beginning of the world. I washed my face and walked the 30 minutes to the train station, looking for a train bound for Bosnia.IMG_2832

It was one of those normal old style trains that had numerous compartments in each car, each one having 6 seats, with an unbelievably small table on the end and a tiny trash can the size of a brass matchbox. There were about a dozen cars mostly of an Eskimo blue color with old diesel engines. I chose a seat and leaned back. I was profoundly excited to be going to Bosnia. I was also scared. I let my mind wander.

I thought back to 12 years earlier when I was a small Amish kid with long black hair and a tattered straw hat. I didn’t think I was so small then. It was a sunny fall day. I had just come back from the one room schoolhouse where I had already put up with six years of schooling. More than enough to know exactly everything I needed to know to make it through life. And then some. If I had my way, I wouldn’t spend another day in that room. I was busy picking red tomatoes when I heard the whining of an automobile coming down the road. The old red Isuzu pickup slowed down as it made a right hand turn into our gravel driveway, kicking up a cloud of dust before it skidded to a halt in front of the old water pump. I gazed in from the tomato field, curious who it might be. Then I doubled over laughing. The driver crawled across the seat, rolled down the passenger window, and stuck out his upper body. He stretched his hands toward the ground and slithered out like a snake. The show was over. I went back to work.

At the dinner table that evening, as we were all enjoying some of my mother’s fine southern-dutch cooking  while the conversation centered on the man who crawled out of his little truck head first. ” I guess he was an Arab?” I asked rhetorically. My dad paused, and a thoughtful expression illuminated his face. “No,” he replied, “the Arab  said he was a Bosnian.” We all furrowed our faces. Everyone tried to remember if they knew what that was. Finally someone voiced the unspoken question. “Whats the difference?” We all looked at Dad. He is wise. If any one knows, he would. But he shook his head. “I don’t know.” With our limited knowledge of the outside world, we called every foreigner an Arab.

The Bosnian came back. I met him. He started coming nearly every day. He would frequently bring his eight year old son along who romped about the large green yard with us and took horse-drawn wagon rides.  Usually he would bring his wife Mirsada along. She was warm and friendly. They bought large quantities of fresh vegetables that he took along back to Lexington to sell to his fellow immigrants. We got to know them and slowly their stories surfaced. Adnan showed his arms that he carefully kept sleeved. With deep fascination I noted the dozens of scars running on each arm from his wrist to his elbow where his arm had been opened with a knife. Again and again. And again. The he lifted his shirt. His stomach and chest were nothing but a mass of scars where he had been sliced open scores of times. It was horrible. And compelling. He had been a soldier and was captured. He was tortured beyond the realm of reality, but added proudly, that he didn’t give any information. Then they brought his wife and began torturing her in front of him. They slit her arms open. They did other things. Adnan screamed. He chewed his tongue. He kicked. He threw himself violently against his chains. But when the burly torturer gouged a piece of Mirsada’s cheek out with tongs, he was ready to speak. So now he had switched sides. As soon as the war ended he fled with his family, wandering about Europe for several years before settling in Lexington Kentucky.

Year after year they came. They brought all kinds of tasty foods. I spent so much time with them I even learned the basics of the Bosnian language. It  became a heritage which I almost adopted. Consequently, when I was in Europe years later with a spare week on my hand, the choice was easy. I would go to Bosnia.

I was jolted back to reality when the door to the compartment opened and two older ladies entered. We exchanged several pleasantries till I had to admit I spoke English. They nodded and smiled. But we spent several hours together, them knitting, and me

Between Zagreb and Sarajevo
Between Zagreb and Sarajevo

watching the Croatian countryside slide by.  The train came to a halt as when we reached the Bosnian border. Agents came through checking every one’s ID. The old ladies gave their ID cards  which were returned while I gave my passport. The agent frowned and said ‘Wait here.” I felt quite lost without my passport, not having seen where the agent disappeared to. Ten minutes later the train hadn’t moved yet. People began grumbling. People asked why. Slowly at first then with momentum news went up and down the train. “There’s an American on board and we think there is something wrong.”  People all across the train left their seats and headed for my car. They crowded into the aisle and tried to get a glimpse.  A dark-haired talkative man elbowed his way to the door of my compartment and addressed me. “You American?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Why you here?

“I am a tourist.”

People kept crowding , trying to get a peek. Someone kept feeding them misinformation. More people shoved in. The questioning continued.

“You running from  INTERPOL?”

“No.”

I don’t believe you.”

Rapid conversation in Bosnian ensued among the crowd. I started to think they might throw me out the window just to get the train moving. Briefly I imagined what it would feel like if my body went crashing through the glass. I also imagined how it would feel if the train just left while my passport is outside.  I stared out that window, ignoring the man offering me insults, and the curious  bystanders. Then the uniformed agent entered the car, elbowing his way through the crowd,  returned my passport, smiled, and hurried off. Well, he tried to.  My interrogator caught his sleeve and asked if I was a fugitive. The agent gave him a withering look and said no.

Thedark-haired man  passed the withering look on to me then

Northern Bosnia on a dreary November day
Northern Bosnia on a dreary November day

deflated, and chagrined sauntered off. Unfortunately [for his pride] he was wrong and his crowd of supporters lost interest.  They were after all only looking for a diversion and all moved back to their seats as the train started moving, belching black smoke into the gray November sky. I leaned back and sighed with relief.  watched the remote country side slide by.  Small house dotted the landscape. Many of the homesteads had a horse or two cows near a small barn. Several pigs or sheep running around while a  chickens pecked in the dirt. Farmers pushed wheelbarrows. Ladies were hanging out laundry. Life was slow. No one hurried. Except me. I hurried on, relentlessly carried away by the train.

The elderly ladies got off innorthern Bosnia. And at the same time a smiling young man got on. We exchanged greetings in Bosnian but when he learned I was from America his eyes shone. His English was good and he asked all about my travels and where I would go in Bosnia. Then he told me all about the foods I  have to try. When evening had come and the train pulled into Sarajevo he got off after bidding me a hearty ‘doviđenja’.

Gazing out the train window.
Gazing out the train window.

The train pulled away from Sarajevo after what seemed like a long time. Almost as if it needed a lot of time to rest because it was an antique. But we headed off in the direction of Mostar. I had the compartment to myself and opened the window. I stuck my head out. The brisk fall breeze ruffled my hair. I looked up as we snaked through the mountains. The stars were so close I could almost touch them. They twinkled and winked at me. The full moon reflected off the sheer stone mountain and the blue river winding through the valley below. In that moment God from heaven reached down and touched my heart. Very clearly he said, ” I am with you, even here.” Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought   back to the time I was 12 years old, picking tomatoes and saw the first Bosnian. I didn’t know what a Bosnian was. Now I did. Now I was alone in the war ravaged country of Bosnia and did not know a single person here. I briefly wondered why I was here. But it didn’t matter. A peace deeper than I had even known filled every corner of my beating heart.

The trained screeched to a stop and several people got on. One of them chose my compartment. He was an older man, sturdily built with shoulder length graying hair. He was a man  of few words, and promptly pulled the curtains on either side of the door, while he stood in the door, effectively blocking out any new passengers. We rode the next few hours in companionable silence.

I knew we were getting close to  Mostar. But I was worried. The train paused for barely a moment at stations, and there were no announcements made prior to stopping. I knew that I would not be able to read the sign and get off in time. As if knowing my dilemma, the man gestured that he will tell me when we get to Mostar. I smiled. But my thoughts raced on. Would he tell me to get off in hick town to rob me? I vowed to be alert and careful.

Finally my fellow passenger said, “Next stop, Mostar.” We both got up and went to the door. Mostar it was. I  took a deep breath as my feet hit Bosnian soil for the first time. Something about it felt right. I found my way out of the train station and oriented my self. I had a small map, but there were no road signs. I began walking in what seemed like the right direction. But I stopped – shocked- as I saw house after house that was shelled out. Occasionally there was a street light and I could clearly see bullet holes everywhere in the clay houses. A person would have been hard pressed to find an area the size of a brick without a bullet hole. That’s when I really began to wonder why I was wandering down this street at 22:00, so far away from where I belonged. Or maybe I belonged here. It was hard to

My Ever Restless Heart

I often meet curious people. I love curious people. I am a curious person.  And I am often asked where I come from when folks hear my accent. It’s quite obvious indeed that I am not a Lancaster native. Have you ever wondered where I come from? Or why on earth I chose to live in an ‘overcrowded’ place like Lancaster? Here is my story.

First I  want to give a  shout out to my parents. This was a very unpleasant experience for them. They did the absolute best they could. I am very proud of them, and today I appreciate them more than I ever have. I cannot begin to imagine how it would feel to spend 20 years teaching your son the Bible (as you perceive it), only to have him say,”I don’t believe you.” They have handled the situation incredibly well.  They are the best.

Second I should clarify one fact. I was raised in a unique community that is a hybrid between Amish and Mennonite. My heritage is 75% Amish, and 25% Mennonite. Based on this and the fact that this community has chosen to follow Amish values rather than Mennonite values I will call them Amish for simplification.

“At the age of 19. I am on the right. Stomping about at a mud sale.

Growing up Amish was a great experience. My parents were likely the most understanding and possibly most open-minded Amish in the faction in which I was born and raised.
My ancestors came from Switzerland in the eighteen hundreds, bringing with them a desire to be true Christians but hampered with generations of alcoholism, violence, and at times witchcraft. My dad was the first in generations to really stand up and take control of the situation. Instead of violence or even a bad  temper he was calm, and expressed regret and apologized when he became impatient.
The integrity of my dad cannot be questioned. Even though we completely disagree on the practical out workings of the Christian life, he taught me that you must know what you believe and stand strong on these beliefs despite time and current. He began a legacy of change and truthfulness that profoundly impresses me and which I am committed to continuing. He expected me to apply this wisdom within the boundaries set by the Amish church, however.
I was born and raised on a farm in south central Kentucky, where I began working in the garden and helping with the chores at age five, which I thoroughly enjoyed. At the age of six I began attending the one room school-house where I learned English, in addition to Pennsylvania Dutch which we spoke around the house. My dad has a large vegetable farm,

“Picking summer squash with my sisters on a beautiful summer morning.”

so my summers were spent harvesting vegetables and fruits for practically as long as I can remember. In addition, we spent lots of time putting up hay and grains for the winter. As the oldest of nine siblings, there was always lots to do. Spare time was spent  fishing   in the farm pond, for trout in the stream or swimming in the creek. I had lots of cousins my own age, life was so much fun. Innocence and bliss reigned.
Slowly a dark cloud rose. My family attended a funeral of a relative in a neighboring county that was part of a slightly less conservative division of Amish. They had bicycles! Slowly, a forbidden thought formed in my mind. What if, just what if, it wasn’t actually sin to have a bicycle as I was taught? And I am living life without one? I began thinking that when I was all grown up, I might consider switching to that particular faction so I could experience the thrills of a bicycle. Of course I didn’t want to incur the wrath of God and everlasting damnation, but what if it wouldn’t? At the age of twelve I began pondering this and a seed of doubt was planted.
As I became older and reached the ages of 14-17 I thought of these doubts, but they were buried so deeply that I could barely even decipher them. I would never have dared to voice doubt about our lifestyle. All my life I had been taught that at about age 18 I would undoubtedly go through a church membership class and be baptized into the church. When I turned 18 a good friend of mine approached me awkwardly and said he is considering to go through this class and wondered if I would join him. I didn’t know why, but I knew I couldn’t. I refused, and pitied him as he sat in front of the church Sunday after Sunday while we all sat on backless benches in the squelching humid summer heat, clothes soaked with sweat, listening as the preachers with slow monotone voices expressed the displeasure of God on those who choose to turn their back on us , God’s sacred chosen people, and warning us to stay on the straight and narrow path of eschewing the conveniences and technology that the world has to offer. The candidates of the church membership class would read

“Picking blackberries with my youngest sister”

verses out of the large Luther German Bible with ancient script, scarcely comprehending what they might be reading, but realizing it was a most integral part of the journey toward earning the hope of salvation, while many in the congregation nodded and slept in the warm summer air.
I felt no regret at not being in the class. And as the time for the classes came each year I was invariably approached by the preachers, my parents, and friends who plead with me to stake my claim with the church so I too could have a chance at salvation. Each year the pleas became more intense, but I refused, saying I needed more time. Deep down, even though I barely recognized it, the real reason was that if I held out till the age of twenty-one without taking church membership, I would be free to leave. This was the age that an individual’s independence was recognized.
I became somewhat of a black sheep, but a strange one. I spent hours reading the Bible to arm myself with arguments on why the Amish church is wrong in its teachings, and therefore it would be right for me to leave. I was very unfulfilled and I knew it. I felt that perhaps if I left and did some great work for the Lord I would finally be happy. Alarmed at the heretical path I was taking, I was summoned to the houses of the preachers many evenings, where we talked many hours late at

“The bishop of the community.”

night in dimly lit back rooms arguing about scripture. While I was not a Christian and had bad motives, my arguments were quite sound, resulting in frustration with the preachers and an even emptier feeling inside myself as I drove my horse home across the dark countryside. The evening sessions usually ended with the preacher telling me,”You are just too young to understand.”
New doubts came to mind. One of my uncles had defected from the faith years before and had relocated far away. He was shunned and given the letter of excommunication which stated that the Amish church releases him from their oversight and recognizes him as a son of Satan and gives Satan the power to destroy him so that his spirit may be saved on the last day.
Occasionally my uncle would come back for a short visit which would always result in a family gathering. The rest of the family made sure that he experienced the shunning, requiring him to eat all his meals in a separate room. And yet, while visiting he was always talking about the Lord while the others told tall tales and joked. I pondered this deeply. ‘Why is the excommunicated sinner more godly than those people shunning him?”
Other events unfolding around me like unabashed dishonest leaders, unrepentant moral failures of upright church members all shook my confidence further. I was hanging onto my upbringing by only a thread.
As I was now well past the age of twenty, I along with everyone within the community realized I had to choose. I had to lay out a course for the rest of my life. I was scared and uncertain. How could I choose a path, not having any experience at all? I was admonished regularly by members from all walks of life within the community to give up my selfish ways, take membership, and to carefully consider the dire eternal consequences for those who abandoned the faith.
I spent months in inward agony, desperately trying to hear from God, haunted by terrifying evil spirits that could only be shaken by prayer and singing to God. I prayed, I spent hours reading the Bible, but it seemed that the harder I tried to find God, the further he disappeared from my life. My life still looked good on the outside, but inwardly I knew something was deeply wrong. I was beset with sins and found no victory. I was hollow. I was empty. I was fake. Only I knew this and carefully guarded this secret. I knew full well if I confided in anyone they would insist that church membership would solve all of the problems, a concept that I couldn’t bear to think of, because I didn’t believe it.

“Hay hauling. Hot sweaty work.”

After a week of intensely searching for God, a week filled with hard work in the hot muggy climate of southern Kentucky, I went along to the Sunday morning service like usual. I joined into the slow, mournful German chants from the sixteenth century, but after the singing was finished I rested my head on my hands and listened to the monotone admonitions with one ear. Something happened. I don’t know how or why, but the Spirit of God started speaking to me. This was not audible, nor did I leave the room in my spirit. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before.
It seemed as everything else faded from around me. I alone was left to face the Spirit. I was asked three questions, the first being whether I am a Christian, to which I responded with a confident, adamant yes. I was almost indignant actually. Me? Seriously? I was like the best Christian around! The next question was whether I would enter heaven if I were to die, to which I again gave a hearty assertion. Of course I would. The next question got me. It was simply one word, one small word. “Why ?”
I didn’t know why. I gulped and swallowed some stagnant air as I searched for an answer, but still I stalled. Time and eternity stood before me without moving. In desperation I lifted my head to focus on the preacher, but he had strayed from his usual exhortations of shunning electricity and other such sinful vices to speaking of staying on the narrow way, which I didn’t want to listen to with the conviction I was under. I didn’t have an answer that I liked so I finally said,”I don’t know.”
I was shocked. For the first time in twenty years I admitted to my self that I couldn’t think of a single reason that I should be allowed to enter heaven. With the strong teaching I’d had of the horrors of hell fire, I was terrified.
But God is good and always completely thorough and all-encompassing. Strangely, never having heard the plan of the new birth, it was revealed to me how Jesus had already died for me and that by accepting his death and perfect life, I would become blameless. Broken and shattered, with my last shred of self-righteousness gone, I gladly accepted this reality, knowing my life would be changed. And it was. Immediately my heart was flooded with peace. Deep peace, so deep there was no way to explain it and no reason for it. I felt so incredibly light, that I thought I may float away. , I didn’t know this was called the new birth. I just knew something mind-blowing from God had happened. Much to my chagrin, I realized I would need to announce that I had been wrong. No I hadn’t been a Christian. I would need to tell my parents of who I had been, what I had done. But that was fine. Suddenly I didn’t really care what people thought anymore.
My parents did not take it well. Indeed they agreed that I wasn’t a real Christian before, (obviously, I hadn’t become a church member which constitutes the new birth and Christianity as the community saw it.) They cautiously agreed that I may now be sincere and if I would take church membership that would be proof.
I recoiled at the thought of dedicating my entire life irrevocably to the Amish religion. Absolutely recoiled in utter horror. But the same Spirit that met me in my time of need asked me whether I am not willing to sacrifice my entire life for him after he gave everything for me. I wanted to say yes but it took awhile, and after I told God I was willing to stay I felt even more free and happy. I reached another level of peace that I didn’t know existed.
And then it became clear to me that God would not have me stay here. I came to realize that I would never be allowed to speak of how I was born again and it was literally the biggest thing that had ever happened to me. It was a test. Slowly, albeit, I had given up my one big dream, and now God was granting me the one thing I had always wished for. Except, no longer was it optional. I had to leave. As I was faced with this overwhelming new reality my heart actually sank. I didn’t know how. How else to live. To survive. I didn’t know if I could do this.
I spoke with my parents about where I was at and they were somewhat understanding even though they didn’t approve of my choices. I bought a bus pass to travel around America for 30 days and started visiting friends and looking for a new church.
I realized that I would no longer be able to live with my family. The community I was raised in would want nothing to do with me. In fact they wouldn’t even want me in the same state. As I traveled I thought about these things. I would lose all my friends. Should I get married someday none of my family would attend the wedding. I would not get to see my eight younger siblings grow up. They would never know why I left, always hearing whispers and rumors of what a heretical wicked person I was. I knew my parents would not appreciate the slander about me but they would be powerless to do anything about it. To speak up would be betrayal of their faith. Perhaps what hurt the most and actually angered me is that my parents would be hurt, looked down upon and deemed a failure because of the unfaithful son, while they lived with more integrity than those who will point fingers.
After traveling for a month and a half I returned to tell my parents that I decided to leave. I came to realize I have no future here. It was very hard for me to accept and they tried very hard to have me stay longer. But they also realized that if I don’t change my mind there is no reason for me to stay within the group.
I set a moving date several weeks out. Actually just a leaving date. I felt like I should give my parents and relatives ample time to confront my decision. And they did. Even though my imminent departure was a well guarded secret among the extended family, my relatives would come to speak with me. Strong, husky, stalwart uncles with long beards urged with me to stay in the fold while tears silently slipped down their cheeks, as they grieved the eternal demise of a once promising young man. Self righteous relatives became angry and scolded me. How dare you betray all of us? Cousins were deeply fascinated by the unabashed rebellion but warned me to stay and asked whether they can do anything to change my mind.
And then came the time I would last go to church. I gave each person an extra hearty handshake, knowing that this is the last day they would look at me as a normal human being. Tomorrow I would do the unthinkable. Tomorrow I would betray them and the friendly faces and twinkling eyes would be replaced with ostracizing glares and icy gazes. Tomorrow the entire village would be plunged into shock and with hushed whispers they would tell the horrifying tale of a young man who lost his way and went to serve the devil. With a feeling of deep sadness I sat with the other Amish people and allowed myself to listen to yet another sermon of the evils of telephones and cars, and sang with gusto the old familiar chanting tune knowing I would come to miss it eventually. As I left the church service for the last time, tears welled up in my eyes.
At home, everything was strained. My parents were grieving deeply and it was hard to act normal knowing it was I who was causing the grief. I told my older siblings of my move and they were sad, and just wanted to be with me, even though they didn’t say much. Sadness covered the house like a fog. My younger siblings did not know what was about to happen. I wanted to tell them, but I knew my parents had kept them in the dark in the hopes that I may change my mind yet.
But moving day arrived and reality could no longer be ignored. I told no one, but I had no idea how I would have the courage to walk out when the time came. I made plans but didn’t know if I would have the strength to carry them out. My younger siblings were informed that I was moving and they were shocked, asking many questions. I packed my few earthly belongings and then a local van driver came to take me to the nearest bus station. (Bless his heart if he reads this.) Eyes brimming with tears, I bid each member of my family goodbye and walked toward the cab. My legs felt like jelly. I did not know if I could even walk there, but I kept taking one step after the next. I couldn’t bear to look back. I tried to breathe normally and stay calm, but I just wanted to scream. I wanted to wake up and realize this is a dream. But I had a calling, I had a mission and I must follow that. I no longer belonged to myself. I kept repeating to myself that we must love nothing, not even our family more than God in this life. I made it into the cab, turned and took one last look and wave at my precious family who had gathered in front of the only home I had ever known to say good-bye to one of their own. Their faces were forlorn. So was mine.

Ürümqi

There was that time in Urumqi. I am not even sure why I went. Deep down I just felt like I had to. Perhaps it was because I had never met anyone who had laid eyes on the place. And that alone made it seem far distant, which in turn, makes it intriguing. Or maybe it’s because Urumqi has earned a place in the Guinness book of World Records as the most remote city from any sea in the world. Regardless I went.

“Urumqi skyline on a hazy winter day.”
“Snowy Urumqi”

I knew it was one of the more repressed places in China and yet I wasn’t quite prepared for how stifling it was.  Armed policemen with shields, and soldiers with machine guns stood on every corner. In fact, there was a manned tank sitting  right outside the hostel I stayed in. An armed policeman assisted by a legion of  thick-haired cats even patrolled the hostel day and night. Cats. I mean lots of them! They swarmed and crawled all over the guests leaving behind a trail of silvery hairs on the unsuspecting  folks.

“Traffic crawled day and night in the slippery streets”

When I landed, I had quite a fiasco getting through customs. Not that the guards were belligerent or anything. Rather they were awed. I happened to be the first person on their shift to come through with a  10 year civilian visa. Respectfully they chided me, saying this is not possible. Isn’t it supposed to be a diplomatic visa? No, I insisted, and after some detaining and phone calls they let me in.

The ride to the city was fun too. I approached the only bus I could find at the airport, and was warmly greeted by an elderly lady. She couldn’t speak a stitch of English, nor I of Mandarin.. We agreed over a map about where I would go and she positioned me on the front seat of the bus, after she rudely hoisted someone else out of this seat.

“Inside Urumqi’s best hostel.”

When we got into the city, I was fortunate enough to find the hostel. After I climbed the second flight of forsaken stairs I suddenly popped into the reception, and an elderly man in a military suit sitting behind a stern wooden desk jumped up. He crossed his arms, shook his head and in a deep gravelly voice said,”No,no,no.” I hesitated. If this wasn’t the hostel, where would it be? I mustered some broken English, and rolled my R’s heavily,” I have reservation.” The frown melted and he welcomed me in. For the paltry sum of 5USD per night I was assigned a bed in an 8 bed dorm.

I was dead tired after a red eye flight, from Moscow with a long layover in Kazakhstan. I pretty much climbed into bed, and snored even though it was only 3 in the afternoon. The mattress was actually a thick blanket of sorts, while the pillow was lumpy and stuffed full of straw.  When I awoke it was dark outside. But I didn’t even notice. I was busy rubbing my eyes in astonishment. Scarcely a foot away, a chubby young Asian face was positioned, staunchly gazing at me without blinking. It was a bit weird but before I could think about it he asked where I was from. The guy almost fainted. He was like speechless. “Americaaa…” he whispered, his shaky voice trailing off. Then he smiled. “Sleep!” he said and melted away in the darkness.

“One of the streets I walked while foraging for food”

But I couldn’t sleep. I was famished. I decided to run out and look for some food since it was only 9PM. When I stepped into the frigid winter air I was startled to find a young caucasian guy standing outside. I didn’t want to get my hopes up but cautiously asked, “Speak English?” He chuckled mildly,”Yeah,” and rather bitterly added, “that’s all I speak!” I asked him about food, and he warned me that the restaurants are scarce and they all close early. “Doesn’t hurt to try though, ” he added.

So I started trudging. It was cold. A fine snow whistled around me with a sharp wind straight out of Siberia and the temperature hovered around 0 Fahrenheit. The tile sidewalks were treacherously slippery. I discovered that I had to just drag my feet,  because lifting them and placing them in front of each other just made me fall over. I slogged though the unfriendly forsaken streets for about an hour without finding a single place that was open or sold food. I was so hungry that I began thinking I might faint if I didn’t find something very soon. But lucky me, I found a vendor with a tiny room that was still open. It was an old lady who had hung a heavy blanket across the open doorway to keep out the wind while she shivered inside. She only sold fruit and juice, so I picked out several orange juices and apples, and happily paid her. I rushed out into the darkness, found a nearby park bench that I relieved of its snow, and with shaking fingers lifted the orange juice to my lips. It tasted like it had been made from rotten oranges, but I didn’t care. I enjoyed one of the best picnics of my life on that frozen steel park bench. An occasional person would walk by. Without fail they would stop short and stare, but usually went on shrugging their shoulders. The foreigners are strange after all, they said to themselves.

“Urumqi. Wierd. Wild. Wonderful.”

I became the best friend of the young man who stared me down while I slept. His name was Victor. We would sit in tiny groups at the dirty table and pet the cats while we discussed where to go next, or what adventures to pursue.  Victor always made sure to sit beside me and put his arm around me so everyone would know we are friends. Don’t interfere.

“Victor,Joe,Poonja and myself”

Joe, Poonja and myself wanted to go to the Turkish bazaar. We were told it was the biggest attraction in Urumqi. We hailed a cheap taxi, and Joe sat up front to talk with the driver since he knew a few words of Mandarin. The bazaar wasn’t actually that great,but it was famous because of the hundreds of people who were killed there several months ago by radical Uighurs. It was huge, with loads of security, but in the end it seemed like 300 stores all selling the same thing.

In the evening we bundled up to go look for a restaurant that Joe had heard about. We walked till we were nearly frozen but couldn’t find it. Finally we agreed to take the first restaurant that we find, but even so we were chased out of the next few. They didn’t want to deal with foreigners. Restaurant three was the charm. It was overstaffed and they were so pleasant. 4 waiters stood as close to us as they could without being completely obnoxious. Never mind that only one of them spoke broken English. We ate some incredibly smelly stuffed cooked pig intestines. Let’s just say I didn’t sleep well.

“Walking in the park”

Urumqi has a lot of security detail. Getting into the city bus or the supermarket requires passing through a full body scanner. This city boasts beautiful parks, but intense security with dozens of armed police and soldiers inside. First I wondered how you can live like this. Then it became normal.

“Night lights of Urumqi”

Urumqi was quite an experience. It was thrilling. But it felt a bit dangerous. It’s a dead city in the winter, and would not recommend going then. It’s vibrant and amazing. I look forward to visiting it in the summer. Some day. Soon.

Hello to the unknown friend!

I am the happy restless soul. Somewhat of a wanderer, never contented to stay at one place for any length of time. I feel most at home with people. From my beginnings of a shy little boy growing up in a traditional Amish community to an adventurer who travels and explores I have realized that I am an evolving person. Here you will find tales of my vagabonding. You will find reflections from my past. Hope for the future. And really, without hope for the future life has no purpose from my perspective.

The road to hope.
The road to hope.