A couple of months ago, a friend took me to the Business Network International event in San Fransisco Bay Area where everybody gathered for networking. Someone came up to me and asked, “what business do you do?”
“None!” I replied.
“Do you work for someone then?”
“No. I don’t!”
“Do you plan to start something then?”
“Where is home for you?”
“I am actually homeless!”
She shook her head in disbelief and excused herself.
I wasn’t lying. I have been homeless. Not once, or twice, but thrice in my life.
When I was 10, my dad beat me up so much that I ran away from home, vowing never to come back. I stormed out of our house and zoomed across the narrow streets of our Mohallah (neighborhood). I headed towards Lorry Adda (Bus Station) to catch the next bus leaving for Lahore so I could live as a free person. As I ran out of breath, I slowed down and eventually stopped running. When I looked right and left, it was business as usual at Chaubara Road, Layyah—street vendors pushing fruit carts; a Mashki (water carrier) with a large goat-skinned water bag strapped to his shoulder spraying water on the dusty footpath; and shopkeepers casually sipping tea outside their shops in the late afternoon light. I had barely covered the half distance to the bus stop when I realized I had no money. “Where will I sleep? What will I get to eat? What will I do without money?” I stood at the Layyah Minor Canal bridge for a while watching the water flow silently beneath the bridge. I couldn’t go ahead and instead wandered for a couple of hours.
As the hunger overtook me, my legs dragged me back home against my will. I sneaked into the kitchen and feasted upon zucchini curry with roti which mom had cooked earlier. Food had never tasted this good before. Then I went up to the roof, located an empty charpoy and lied down on it with a big sigh of relief. After that, I never ran away from home no matter how hard my elders beat me up. It was scary to even think of becoming homeless.
It wasn’t much later in life that I became homeless for the first time in my life, albeit for different reasons. In 2015, I quit my job and apartment in Germany to travel the world by bicycle. For the next five years, every day of cycling, I would be asking the same questions I had asked myself a couple of decades ago, “where will I sleep? What will I get to eat? etc.” But somehow, the universe conspired to make things happen for me. Help came from strangers. I also learned to make myself home at abandoned places, in deserts, under trees, open skies, and under tiniest roofs, I could find.
When the Canadian winter caught me in fall 2018, and I had nowhere to go, my friend, Nasir sheltered me in his house in Mississauga for six months. I joined the gym, tried out new diet plans, played with his kids, and made a lot of friends in the Toronto area. During this time, I almost forgot that I was still on the journey. In Spring 2019, when I left his home to resume my journey north, I became homeless for the second time in life.
The far-flung roads of Canada and Alaska were my new home, a place I shared with bears and other wild animals. Every night, it was an adventure pitching the tent at a new place. In the morning, it would take me a few seconds after waking up to remember where I was. When I finished my bicycle journey to Alaska in August 2019, instead of flying back to Pakistan, I flew to LA upon the invitation of my dear friend Azhar Bhai. His friend Naveed Bhai had a vacant house where I stayed for quite some time before moving to Azhar Bhai’s home. Azhar Bhai and his wife Farah Bhabi took me everywhere, be it birthday parties, dinners, talks, or fundraisers of all sorts. We went to music rehearsals, meditation sessions, and movies. We had musical evenings at their house against the backdrop of Los Angeles. Though the couple has two adult sons, it was as if they had adopted me as a new family member. I cycled the JoshuaTree National Park with their son Daniyal.
They have the most beautiful German shepherds in the world—Yaroo and Zojja. With them, I became a dog too. I played and went for walks with them in the afternoon. Through the big windows of their house, I could look at the expansive view of Los Angeles for hours. Every time, my eyes would trace the mountain skyline at the horizon.
In LA, all my cycling plans went to the back burner. I read books, took dozens of courses on lynda.com, visited film schools even though I had no money for tuition. Meanwhile, I had long and countless discussions with Azhar Bhai about possibly every topic on life. In him, I found a teacher who had a great influence on me. He introduced me to the world of non-profit work. We recorded songs and created videos, presentations, websites, ads, designs posters, flyers for upcoming fundraisers. He and Farah Bhabi supported me in everything. My heart is full of gratitude for them and many others who have been so kind to me.
I loved the LA sunshine. I loved the breeze, the blue sky, and the rain. I loved the Pakistani community here. It became my most favorite place along the journey. In total, I spent about eight months in LA. It is the longest I have stayed anywhere other than in Pakistan and Germany. Before coming here, I didn’t know even a single person here. Now, I have a family in LA.
When finally it was time to leave, the world got hit by COVID-19 and everything turned upside down. Suddenly, nobody is talking about going to work, being productive, growth rate, or even pursuing dreams. From sports to entertainment, schools to offices, and mosques to temples, everything is shutting down. Coronavirus has rendered everything irrelevant. Oddly enough, Azhar Bhai’s house in LA is located at via Corona street.
Nothing else matters now, only survival. I had always had the impression that the common enemy to the human race would be some aliens coming from another planet. But our new enemy has come from our own planet. Most of us who grew up without experiencing the trauma of a major war, displacement, famine, or wide-spread pandemic diseases, we had started believing that we were in charge of the planet and that the whole universe revolved around us. If there is one thing that COVID-19 can teach us, it’s humility. How fragile we are even in comparison to a microscopic thing. It is a reminder that though we may be the superspecies on this planet, our existence and evolution from a single cell is nothing short of a miracle. We will always be vulnerable and at the mercy of mother nature.
Although, about 25,000 people die because of hunger every day, and about 14,000 due to poor healthcare, something we could do something about, the reason why we are so concerned today is because everyone’s life is in danger. Our new enemy doesn’t care if you are rich or poor. Unlike us, it doesn’t discriminate based on wealth, race or religion. This enemy will bring out the worst in us. Some people have already started to hoard critical supplies to exploit others later. But it will also bring out the good in us. After all, we have a common enemy and our survival is linked to the survival of others. We have to cooperate if we want to win this war. This is the only way to evolve. The largest quarantine in human history has given us a great opportunity for introspection, that we are all in it together. The Coronavirus is demonstrating what Climate Change will do to us in the future.
Yesterday, I took the Qatar Flight from LA to Karachi via Doha with my bicycle on the plane hold. The journey to the Americas which began four years and two months ago finally came to an end. With people wearing surgical masks at the airports, I felt being in a hospital emergency ward.
When the plane took off at LAX airport, I left behind a part of me in the Americas—a part of me cycling somewhere on a long road leading to the horizon; or camping in the wide-open tundra in midnight sun; or, sipping tea at the terrace of via Corona Street watching friends smoke Sheesha and exhale clouds of smoke against the backdrop of the twinkling lights of LA. A part of me is still chasing two golden balls of fur, Yaroo and Zojja, in the sunset rays.
And when I left LA, I became homeless again. This time, for the third time in my life.
At Karachi airport, the immigration officer checks the expiry date of my Pakistan Origin Card and flips pages of my passport.
“Where are you coming from?” he asks.
“Los Angeles,” I reply
“Wahan kya position hay? (What’s the position there?)”
“Koi position nahi hey meri (I don’t hold any position there!)”
He grins and says, “no, I mean to ask, how is the Coronavirus situation in LA?”
“Oh!” I smile sheepishly.
So long Los Angeles. So long Americas!