I've spent some time discussing the reasons behind my decision to go to Saudi Arabia. I don't know that I have more to say than I love to teach. I love adventure. I love experiencing the world in a different way. Yes, I know the restrictions. And yet, I move forward despite the fears and concerns of those who love me.
Today I found an abaya. It is black, of course, and it has a shiny stripe or two. It covers me - all the way - 12 inches beyond my ankles. My hands are covered to the tune of 6 inches of extra cloth beyond my fingertips. A sewing machine is in my future. The scarf, thin and black, made for summer and yet opaque, will keep me from feeling the horrible heat that a winter scarf brings. I put on the dress, covering the blue and red and yellow striped sleeveless blouse, the black skirt, decorated in lace, the little pink and blue and tan socks that keep my feet warm in this weather. And there I am. Nothing but my face, the rest of me swathed in black.
I wonder if I will learn to love this garment. Will I come to hate it? Will it be a combination? Most things are a combination. "Why do you want this garment?" the man asks me, looking at my pale, pink face, so different from the others who come into his store. Efficient and holding my files, all my various forms for the embassy, I smile at him and say the magic words,"I'm going to Saudi Arabia for a year." His face lights up and he recounts his own trip to that world, to Mecca. "My pilgrim" he says, "to the holy city." He takes $5 off my purchase. And then he asks, "Will you be able to go to Mecca?" With a frown, I say, yes the city, but not to the place of worship. Only Muslims can go there. I tell him that I am not a Muslim. He nods in understanding and tells me how beautiful the land is, how he loved his own pilgrim.
I teach English. I listen for mistakes. It is an occupational hazard. This time, though, I stop myself from saying "pilgrimage - your pilgrimage." For it is now that I remember why I do what I do. It is to connect with people, to share our experiences, to know their perspective. This man, this wonderful Muslim man, here in the USA, shares with me his experience of Mecca, the one I will not ever be permitted, and I listen to his words and his message.
Today, I bought an abaya. Today, I have made the next step toward my journey. The Chinese say that the longest journey begins with a single step. It is a joy to know that one step, and then another and then another will bring me people, connection, and understanding.
I am on my own pilgrim.