The Boy Who Spoke to Mountains

I’m sitting in a crowded waiting area at New York’s JFK airport across from my uncle. We have a few hours to spare before I need to go to my gate, and he decides to wait with me. He brought me a chicken tikka sandwich for lunch, and kept making sure my purse was carefully placed between the two of us to avoid “snatchers”.

He is a tiny man of about 5'3". He’s slight and hunched, wearing baggy sweats, a puffy coat and a wool knit scarf around his neck. His bag is a pull-along with wheels, and his shoes have velcro in place of laces for comfort and efficiency.

It’s in this moment, as I’m attempting to eat the fairly messy sandwich on a hard plastic airport chair, that he begins to talk about his life.

He worked for Pakistani International Airlines (PIA) from the 60's-80's, mainly in the Sales and Marketing departments. His job led him to cities all over the world, but Paris was his favorite. It’s the one that comes back to him in his dreams.

While living in Paris, he connected with a Mountaineering Association as part of PIA’s marketing efforts to highlight the exciting travel opportunities in Pakistan; in turn (ideally), these associations would drive tourism to the region. While hosting one of these events, he met the president of the association and his wife, both avid outdoor thrill seekers.

My uncle introduced the couple to a group of climbers in a village at the base of a mountain in Pakistan; the climbers had a small business taking tourists up and around the mountains on excursions. Among the group was a young boy named Haji Ahmed — but they referred to him as “the boy who spoke to mountains”.

Gentle, kind and adventurous, Haji Ahmed was rumored to have an ability to connect with the mountains that others did not. It was said that the mountains were alive with moods and emotions, and Haji Ahmed was the only one who could understand what they felt. He had a deep knowledge of the mountain terrain and could predict the best times to climb before there was any indication of mild weather on the horizon. Climbing with Haji Ahmed was like being with the mountains personified.

The couple soon traveled to Pakistan to join Haji Ahmed and a few other climbers on an excursion through the mountains. They were so enthralled by the experience, they continued to return year after year, asking only to climb when Haji Ahmed was available.

The connection opened up a new world for Ahmed. He was flown to Paris to meet the rest of the mountaineering association and received offers from companies looking to make a formal business of the climbing excursions. As a result, Ahmed struck a close friendship with my uncle. They discussed colorful future plans filled with adventures up to the highest, least explored areas of the Pakistani mountains.

During one trip, the couple was disappointed to find that Haji Ahmed was advising against a climb. “The mountains are angry” he told them. He explained that when the mountains turned angry, they were dangerous to everyone on them. The couple, however, had become more confident in their skills and increasingly daring on their climbs. They pushed Ahmed to lead the climb, despite his better judgment. In the end, he gave in.

The entire group was killed in an avalanche that day. Since then, the village has not seen another like Haji Ahmed.

My uncle finished the story just as an announcer instructed travelers on my flight to go to the gate. We said our goodbyes and I watched him head back towards the train that would take him to a bus, that would finally bring him back to his small apartment in Queens, filled with old cameras, a lazy cat and memories of the boy who spoke to mountains.

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