At first they drove west on the main highway. The road was a series of long straight stretches located less than a kilometer in most instances from the bays and lagoons of the coast. With the vehicle on automatic guidance – as were all the other cars – Hushang was free to point out locations and explain some of the history of the region. Mai listened attentively and asked questions.
It was their third outing and they had become more relaxed in each other’s presence. As well as learning about the country and its people Mai was able to improve her knowledge of their language, although the couple mostly spoke English together. Mai also taught Hushang some of her own dialect. He faltered with its tonal variations and struggled with its polite particles and gender variations. With sadness Mai explained that the dialect was no longer taught in schools under the policies of the Greater Asian Nation but small groups were dedicated to its preservation and had established libraries to protect its literary heritage. Hushang was reminded of the linguistic history of his homeland and the battle over hundreds of years to shield it from Arabic corruption, particularly in the sphere of religion.
A great deal of the coastline had been given over to walled townships of luxurious villas that blocked out the travellers’ views from the highway. However, as they went further west, the density of development lessened and tiny villages of old buildings began to predominate. Soon they were beyond the reach of the guided driving network and Hushang relished the opportunity to take control of his car. They skirted around a major metropolis, which dominated the horizon for half an hour or so. Its outline became even more clear when Hushang steered on to a narrow rising road that twisted between farms and orchards.
“Most of our government departments are located in that old city.” Hushang gave a little chuckle.
“Why do you laugh?” Mai asked.
“In the old days many jokes were told about the people of this city. The men were supposed to slow-witted and the women were supposed to be promiscuous.”
“An interesting combination.”
“Yes, and an ideal place from which to source government employees.” Hushang laughed at his own joke.
“So why is your agency not there?”
“The king prefers to live in the neighbouring province – a combination of historical associations and security considerations. So we are ay his side.”
By now the road had tapered and it had become little more than a rough trail identifiable only by the bare ground traced by previous sets of mechanised wheels. After negotiating several hairpin bends with no guardrails to interrupt a careless tumble into the deep valleys below, Hushang came to an abrupt stop. His destination was only few hundred metres away and it took Mai’s breath away.
Instead of steeply sloped hills there were several terraces carved into part of the landscape. In the middle of the panorama was a village, its clay structures starkly different to their surrounding greenery. The homes and shops were literally stacked on top of each other with countless layers of residences and businesses ascending the hillside as if a gifted child playing with blocks had set them in place. At the front of each house was a small courtyard, which also seemed to be a street of sorts. On closer inspection Mai realised that the yard and thoroughfare were also the roof of the dwelling below.
“We cannot drive the car through the village. The streets are made from adobe and wooden rods and are only strong enough to serve as footpaths. Anyway, it’s best to appreciate it from a distance.” Hushang had been here only once before and the place fascinated him. It seemed, to Hushang, enchanted and, possibly, full of tales of simpler, happier times. Of course, he had no evidence for these suppositions other than their presence in his imagination.
“Oh. It’s marvelous. Really, truly. Thank you for bringing me here.”
Without thinking about the consequences Mai leaned to kiss Hushang on the cheek. He froze with the impact as if ice had been dropped down the back of his shirt. She withdrew.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.” Mai refocused on the magnificent view.