I am a grubby, smelly ball of sweat. The fan furiously spins with its peculiar ‘whoosh-click-whoosh-click’. The windows are open, so every surface is covered in dust. I rub more dust into the sweat trickling down my face, and look through the dusty flyscreen into the pollution, muttering, “What am I doing here, Lord?”
It’s not like I can’t afford an air-conditioner, but my electricity simply wouldn’t support it. I stand in front of the fan, flapping my loose cotton shirt up and down.
Evening descends, and it is definitely cooler out than in. Although my ‘to-do’ list is as long as a roll of toilet paper, I decide that a break is in order. Taking a deep breath, I descend the 86 steps of the single cement stairwell, each landing lit with a 20 watt light bulb that is activated by noise. The walls are papered with advertisements for cleaning companies, moving companies, odd-jobs-people and plumbers.
There are a few things I need to get from the supermarket, and I decide that a stroll through the ‘Old City’ might be a pleasant way to get there, as well as restoring some perspective to life.
Little girls skip past me, their hair tied up in multitudes of colourful bands. They are dressed in the flowery, glittery dresses that, sadly, western girls are usually ‘too cool’ to wear. Older kids zoom around on roller blades, some of which have coloured lights in the wheels. Women stroll down the ancient street in striped trousers and floral tops, comfortable and confident. A little boy, perhaps a year old, smiles at me over the shoulder of his father. He is one happy little tike, laughing, then spontaneously throwing his arms tightly around his father’s neck and planting a long sloppy kiss on his father’s cheek. Other men sport the ‘rolled up singlet’ look in an effort to cool down – something I’d happily do if I were a man.
The large square of the ‘Old City’ is full of tables and chairs, each with a bottle of carbonated drink and a container of toilet paper to use as napkins. People are everywhere, bobbing about like dumplings in a pot of boiling water. The edges of the square are lined with carts belonging to Moslem meat-stick sellers, some using squid, fish, sweet potato, steamed bread or even vegetables in the place of the standard mutton. The air is thick with the spicy smoke from the Moslem barbeques, and the huge spotlights shining through the fragrant fog give the whole square a party atmosphere.
Even more festive is the karaoke that is underway at the front of the square. The singers are actually very good … you’d want to be to stand up in front of an audience of hundreds. The music is punctuated by the bang-bang of guns, sounding like drums badly out of time.
A little further down the long avenue, near the entrance to the ancient gardens, resplendent with coloured strings of lights, are the balloons and guns. For a fee, you can fire at a balloon. Success is rewarded with a prize. The combination of a peaceful garden and the string of ‘shoot the balloon’ stalls seem incongruous, but that typifies life in Asia. At least the entrance to the Buddhist temple is quiet, save for a few people offering incense sticks, the fragrance mingling with the barbeque smoke.
These streets have seen many changes over the centuries. The days of pomp and ceremony, of women with tiny feet and men with long braided hair, have been replaced by Moslem barbeques, karaoke and kids on roller blades. Centuries have passed, but this location remains a gathering place for people.
That, I am reminded as forcefully as a tiny bullet puncturing a balloon, is why I am here.
Is it worth the dust? Is it worth the heat in summer and the bitter cold in winter? Is it worth the frustrations of less than reliable utilities? Is it worth the loneliness of living far from family and friends of my own culture?
In summer, at least, a prayerful stroll through the ‘Old City’ is all it takes to restore that sense of perspective.
There are many more ‘Old Cities’ scattered throughout Asia and beyond. In some, there is absolutely no Christian witness amongst the people who congregate there. Those people are headed for eternity … but without the option of trusting Jesus.
Leave your comfort zone. Come for a walk.
It’s worth it.
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