By Janie Southard
ROCKFORD -- Lois Koch has worn many hats in her 87 years: farm wife, great-grandmother, teacher, world traveler and saffron dealer.
In 1970, Koch and her late husband, Morris, left Celina for a few weeks' visit with their son, Dan, a Peace Corps teacher in Afghanistan. Although they made visits along the way to Rome and Istanbul, they did not expect to see Damascus, Syria.
"Two small airplanes came up on either side of our plane and forced us to land in a little airport near Damascus. As we taxied down the tarmac, there were rows and rows of soldiers," she told The Daily Standard on Wednesday morning in the dining room of Maplewood at Shane Hill, where she is a resident.
All the passengers were forced to leave the plane but, after a wait in the terminal, they were all herded back on the plane, which soon took off for Afghanistan.
"No, we were never able to find out what was going on, and I still don't know to this day," she said, playing with one of the many beaded bracelets she has made for many years from imported beads. The couple wasn't in Afghanistan long before Koch fell down a flight of marble steps in the house where they were staying and broke her foot.
"My son took me to the local hospital, which was a little mud and brick building with no glass in the windows. People were sitting on the floor and leaning against the walls. There was only one chair and a little old woman was sitting there," she recalled.
The woman got up and indicated Koch should take her seat. At first Koch declined, but her son said the old woman's feelings would be hurt if Koch didn't sit down.
The x-ray technician was a Muslim man who would not touch Koch's foot. "It was probably because I was 'the infidel' in his mind and, I imagine, because I was a woman. So my son moved my foot around for the x-ray," she explained.
The x-ray was small, about 4-by-6 inches, but very clear. When she learned there was no one at the hospital who could set the bone, she decided to buy the x-ray and keep it with her.
"I paid 38 cents for it," she said.
Koch was "not about to return home just for a broken foot" and proceeded to wrap it in an elastic bandage. The next day, she, her husband, her son and four Afghan men spent the day riding in a small Russian taxi over the mountains to the town of Mazar e Sharif.
"The scenery was beautiful, lovely waterfalls, but the road was a primitive two-lane. I wondered how they got that road to hang on the side of the mountains," she laughed.
The next day they rode 14 hours through the dessert in 120-degree heat. The vehicle was a Russian truck with two long board seats in the truck bed and a one-piece canvas overhead.
"There are no roads in the desert, so the driver's guide stood in the back of the truck and yelled out where to turn," she said.
After a stay in her son's adopted village, the couple went on to India to visit the family of their former exchange student.
Koch's next trip to India came 14 years later, this time in search of a missing shipment of saffron, the world's costliest spice. At that time (1984), its value was $1,500 per kilo (about two pounds), according to Koch.
While visiting her son Dan, by then an importer living in Portland, Ore., she learned he was trying to chase down two kilos of saffron that were long overdue from a small supplier in India. Just casually Dan remarked that this would be a good trip for his mom -- she could visit the exchange student's parents and then sort out the saffron deal.
Later, back in Ohio, she decided she would go to India even though she would be making the trip alone.
"My husband had died not long before and I was just recovering from hip replacement surgery, but I thought a trip like this would be a good change for me," she said. "By the time we were flying over the ocean though I really missed having my husband with me and thought 'what am I doing going off to India by myself."
But she kept to the plan and her exchange student's family met her in New Delhi, where she spent some time before setting off for Kashmir where the saffron farmer lived.
The family's son Bonu accompanied her and together they made the cold November trip.
"At night the government turned off the electricity and, believe me, it got cold. We both slept in our clothes and Bonu wore a wool cap and gloves," she said.
She got word to the saffron farmer via a local airport worker that she wanted to talk to him.
"He was a small operator and said he just couldn't get a large amount of saffron to ship. Well, we arranged for him to bring in every night whatever saffron he had harvested," Koch said.
He dutifully brought the harvest to town, still wet from the fields. Koch laid the threads on her dresser to dry them.
She remembered the purple fields of saffron plants, a crocus-looking flower. At night the village women would carefully pull off the purple flowers leaving the two-inch stamens, three to a flower. The stamens are the saffron.
Finally the farmer brought in enough to make a shipment worth while; however, there was yet another glitch. Koch had to arrange for a spice broker in India as she was not legally permitted to handle the transaction.
"That broker was a slick-operator kind of guy who complained constantly about the United States. Finally I told him I couldn't do anything about my government just as he couldn't do anything about the poverty in India," she said.
After that the broker calmed down and later invited Koch to dine with his family in his affluent neighborhood.
"We had a very nice meal and then celebrated with a pot of saffron tea," she said.