Finding Heaven Where I Least Expect It

“’Heaven is the place where you think of nowhere else’…I can believe that.” I tell Selma, quoting Pico Iyer.

“I think I’ve been able to find heaven wherever we’ve been, Chakwal, Faisalabad, Lahore, London, California…” I add.

“So every time I look through the window at the sun or the clouds, take a sip of coffee, pick up a book, underline a word or phrase I love, I’ll remind myself, I’m in my own heaven, my Paradise.”

I don’t know if I’ve convinced her, but I’m a believer. Selma has just left her own version of Paradise, Spain, and seeks a new one in Northern California, where we continue to work on our Travel memoir, That These Should be Lies: In the Footsteps of Cervantes.

And here’s how our story begins:

Seeking Paradise in Spain

For now, no grading. Only dunking the tip of a crisp sugared churro into thick warm chocolate sauce. Luscious, sweetened bitterness of cacao melting into citrusy woodsy cinnamon.

I bite into my third churro. 

churros dipped in chocolate

The taste is so indelibly here—Spain—but it also tastes of home, childhood—Pakistan. Luscious like our aunt Abidha’s homemade mango ice cream on a sultry night.  Sumptuous like the colors mummy chooses to paint the sunset behind the darkening dome of a mosque.  Comforting like a conversation with Selma over a cup of coffee—a feeling of home wherever we go. 

The freedom to go where my mind takes me is allI want.  To luxuriate in each of my sensory delights. To take my time. But is it even possible now?  Work never ends.  

So Different from Where we Started

Our lives are so different from where we started—long days of nothingness, of heat, of siestas, of slipping out in the midafternoon to jump from diving boards when all the adults were sleeping. That pace and lack of responsibility was what we experienced as children in Pakistan in the mid 70s. 

This and the belief in the afterlife—rest and joy forever in a garden. All believers, says the Quran, have been promised to drink milk in brooks of Paradise. Coffee is never mentioned in the Muslim tradition that we grew up with, despite its origins in Yemen.

Storks in Alacala de Henaras Tillism

I lean back and look out the window at a stork on the church belfry facing the cafe. Balanced on its bright orange leg, it leans forward, its orange bill pointed downward. Movements like a flamenco dancer, quick, abrupt, stretching its neck up and back, resting its crown. Another stork swoops down toward the nest. The flamenco dancer looks up and claps its beak—castanet like. Staccato reverberations—the tabla, ta ta thai.

This is how life could be, forever.

The sounds, the sun, the churros, the Spanish. 

It could be California, my current home, but for the lisp, but for the long-drawn-out time we are taking to eat churros and chocolate mid-morning. 

The lisp, the chocolate and churros, and the drawn-out morning, make it Spain— Alcala de Henares, the birthplace of Cervantes—a forty-five-minute train ride worth 3.60 €, from Madrid.

Teaching the five-paragraph essay

I’m on vacation from my job teaching English as a Second Language at a community college in the San Francisco Bay Area. My students, from all over the world, are learning how to write academic essays: introductions with a hook, thesis statements in the first paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion to wrap it all up. I’m ambivalent about my work: I love my students, but most research shows that I might be hindering their abilities to write, I might be giving them a false sense of what it means to communicate through writing by focusing on the five-paragraph essay, but I’m preparing them for the next level, which feels necessary. I feel lost somewhere between wanting to change the world and needing to continue and help my students on the academic path we started on.

Now, though, is vacation—coffee, churros and chocolates, and storks.

The Birthplace of Cervantes

This is the birthplace of Cervantes, the man we are following as we travel together through Spain. Cervantes might have sat in this exact same place—not the cafe—but maybe an inn. He might have looked out at the storks pumping their wings protecting their nest. Playing their castanets, their tablas, as they move to their own music.

I turn to Selma who’s sitting opposite me sipping her cafe con leche avoiding all that is sweet. With her left hand, she’s scrolling on her phone.  She’s reading a book.  I can tell by the way she’s scrolling and not clicking. I choose not to interrupt her as I pop the last piece of chocolate dipped churro in my mouth.

I’m not going to spoil the day for her by telling her that I haven’t yet finished reading the Spanish Bible. I was the one who suggested we read it for this trip all those months ago, in September.

There was no way I would be able to juggle work and all the required reading for this trip. I didn’t realize how long it was. On kindle, all books seem more accessible. But when I ordered it along with my bright red paperback copy of the New York Times bestseller Don Quixote, a new translation by Edith Grossman and an introduction by Harold Bloom, I realized I’d jumped in before I was ready.  Had Selma pulled me in like in our childhood? 

Selma, on the other hand, has probably already completed it and has begun reading it in Spanish. That’s how she is. Meticulous and obsessed.

Two women with glasses in front of windmills
Selma and Anniqua in Spain

A Never-Ending Memoir

I’ve made slow progress. At least I’m past where I left off in graduate school in Pakistan and have begun reading about The Life of Ginés de Pasamonte.  The memoir that cannot be completed till life ends. A never-ending memoir. 

That sounds like our lives—who we were, who we’ve become, the story we’re piecing together with this trip.  


Our stories are the ones about a six-year-old who brought home a book of poems, each poem meticulously illustrated. About her eight-year-old sister who painted the details of a brick wall—one brick at a time—to capture the details of the patterns that no one else noticed.

Our story is about two sisters who stayed within the boundaries of the family and culture in which they grew up. It’s about how they spent their lives teaching others how to question those boundaries without realizing that from the periphery of where they stood, they had discovered galaxies that they did not even know existed. 

“We must begin with ourselves”, says Selma. 

“Yes” I say, “and why you pushed me in the pool that day”.

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art

Pico Iyer’s search for Paradise.

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