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Risky Business in Pakistan

[Extract from Hand to Mouth to India by Tom Thumb]

“There is a boy across the river

With a bottom like a peach!

But alas! I cannot swim!”

(’The Wounded Heart’ an old Peshtun song)

I was taken just a short way out of the city, towards the first outcrops of the rocky hills to the North where I hoped to chill out for some time. The grey crags loomed like sentinels of my route into Pathan country, digressing a little from my Eastern drift as I ventured into unknown mountainous parts.

The traditional overland trail of the 60’s had run through Afghanistan and into Kabul, the real jewel of the journey. There travellers blew their minds on the best hashish in the world and gazed out in stupefied wonder at the absurd Tolkienesque landscapes on the roof of the world. They were made to feel welcome in every way by the generous and kindly Afghanis, who still proudly carried their World War One rifles.

Now Kabul is in rubble and though the warring factions possess the most up-to-date military hardware, many of the basic amenities are absent. Not a functioning electric lamp but rocket launchers a-plenty. Peter was going by the more accessible Southern route. Most of the North is strewn with landmines and tourists are not so welcome there.

To make up for the fact that Kabul was now off limits I decided to go up along the Western fringe of Pakistan where the culture and people are pretty similar to their warring neighbours. They share a language and have been shooting each other like good realtives for centuries. I hoped to get a notion of what it was that I was missing.

After a three mile walk out of town, I grabbed a ride with a plump and jolly civil servant called Asmat. He invited me for lunch in his home village of Pishin where his offices were based.

I learnt to fold up pieces of flat bread, here called roti, into triangular cones that would allow me to scoop up dal and vegetable dishes without muddying my right hand. Then we sat around in the office, drinking green tea and chewing the fat.

I found myself in the thick of Asian conversational character once again as I spoke to a rather academic chap who was clearly enjoying the opportunity to show off his education. He proceeded to make a polite and thorough investigation of the nature of my life and my reasons for it. He jumped at the bit when I professed a liking for the Sufis.

“But sir, aren’t the Sufis a very aloof people, conducting their practices away from the common herd?”

“I suppose so, yes.”

“But sir,” his eyes sparkling with delight as he pounced, “Does not Aristotle say that Man is a social creature?”

In his charming enthusiasm, he went on to express doubts as to whether poets were very practical people and also put it to me that the English language was ‘unreasonable, unhistorical and unimaginable’-apparently he expected me to leap to the defence of the lettering of my mother tongue because he seemed disappointed when I just shrugged, not caring either way. But he outdid himself when he asked me casually:

“So, what is the current state of Existentialism in England?”

After an hour of this another bureaucrat entered; a short, odd-looking guy with half-Chinese features and a strange vibe about him. He invited me to stay the night at his home in Pishin, as it was already becoming a little late to make much more progress that day.

I was more or less accepting his offer when I saw that Asmat was making a discreet shaking motion with his head. I couldn’t understand what the problem might be and when I asked him, he replied that nothing was wrong. But as the Chinese-looking guy went on to elucidate the dinner we would eat and so on, Asmat stood behind him and shook his head in an exaggerated ‘no!’ Eventually, I accepted his signal and apologized to the sallow-skinned man, explaining that I had to get back on the road.

More than a little confused, I went out to join Asmat in the jeep outside.

“Asmat, what was wrong?”

“I tell you, my friend, if you had gone home with that man-in the night, he would fuck you!”

“Oh. but he is not so strong, he could not-” “He would come with three or four men. They hold you and then they all fuck you!”

Oh. That certainly explained the weird feeling I got from the guy’s general manner that, in retrospect, certainly resembled a kind of salivation: ‘Ah! God has sent me some naive, fresh, white flesh!

That wasn’t the first time in my travels that men were interested in my appearance with my back towards them. Twice in my tour of Europe in the Spring, I’d been approached in less than a subtle manner: the first, whilst waiting outside the train station in Amsterdam-two different German guys had solicited me, one of them offering me as much as 150 guilders ($80) for my services. The other encounter was a little more protracted and was perhaps the natural result of attempting to hitch in the middle of the night in Belgium.

I was stranded in Antwerp and had just been thrown out of the tube station as I tried to make my bed there. Although it was well into May, the night was bitterly cold and unrelenting winds cursed the sinister streets. I dragged myself along in utter fatigue, trying to find even a half-decent place to crumple up and await the morning. However, all I could find were grisly alleys and glossy corners with glitzy bars, full of rowdy drinkers who stared at me with meet-me-not eyes. They seemed ready to run out and add my head to the garbage that strewed the gutter.

Eventually, I reckoned I’d have nothing to lose by standing by the main exit road and sticking out my thumb-even a police cell might have been a relief. I’d barely even started my hitchhiking mantras of ‘OmpleasegiveTomaliftohOmpleasepleasegiveTomalift’ and’HareRamanoharmtomeoh” before a car actually stopped. I ran up to the red brake lights and clambered in to the back seat in the carefree manner of the cold and knackered traveller, offered a warm and comfy environment-if only a temporary one.

My benefactors were called Stanley and Peter. I immediately hastened to reassure them that although I was hitchhiking at 1am, I was not a dangerous lunatic and did so by chatting away in as charming a way as i could about my life and travels. They visibly relaxed and after a while of driving through the dark, Stanley declared that he could give me a place to sleep if I liked. By the languid drawl of his voice, I didn’t anticipate it would be much fun but at that point I’d have said yes to a cave in the seventh layer of hell. We dropped Peter off and took a country road that wound through the flat, flat fields of the Belgian lowlands until we came to Stanley’s remote cottage in the middle of nowhere. I smelt a rat.

We climbed some stairs up to the main room, where there was a television and a double bed. Whereupon, Stanley removed all of his clothes, save for a pair of bulging underpants and sprawled out on his stomach across the bed, propping himself up on his elbows in an expression of bored readiness.

“Could you give me a massage?” he asked in a slow and strangely suggestive voice. I told him, quite truthfully, that I wasn’t really up to it and left the room to go to the toilet. Inside the lavatory, my worst fears were confirmed with a sinking feeling of yet another comic episode descending upon me. On the wall was a selection of postcards portraying an unnerving amount of young men-the gentlemen in question displayed a remarkable lack of clothing and held the strangest of bare-bottomed poses-the most vivid being that of ‘Bruce’-I know his name because he was spelling his name in the sand with a jet of urine.

Right. I looked out the windows but I didn’t reckon that I could survive the exposure of the night. I trudged wearily up the stairs to the main room, with a grim premonition of the scene that was to unfold. Stanley was quite a heavy guy and I guessed that he could easily pin me down if he got the advantage. But I suspected that he’d crumple into a pathetic ball of flab after a couple of jabs though I hoped I wouldn’t have to find out.

“Would you like to take a shower?” Stanley asked, as I re-entered.

“Ah, no, not really.” I said in complete truth.

“Couldn’t you give me just a little massage?” He begged with pleading eyes.

“I’m just too tired!” I explained, pulling out my sleeping bag onto the floor.

“Aren’t you coming into the bed?”

“Er, no-I can’t sleep in beds!” His eyes looked doubtful and so I continued, “Er, yeah, I never can-not since I was fourteen. Problem with my back, you see-I need the firmness of the floor, to avoid any problems!” Get it, Stanley? No, he didn’t.

“Aren’t you going to take your clothes off?” he asked, as I crawled fully dressed into my canvas.

“Oh no, really, I’m so dirty that it doesn’t really make any difference, now.”

“You can take a shower.

“Er, no, it’s the kind of deep down dirt that only a sauna could get out, you know?”

He looked at me as it to say that I was being most most unreasonable and that he was very disappointed in me. However, he displayed his magnanimity by holding no grudges and coming over to pat my stomach as he said:

“Sleep well!”

Some chance. In the middle of the night, his arm flopped down as if by accident onto my knees and I jumped up with an unnecessary shout of alarm. He apologized and withdrew the offending limb. Honestly, talk about someone just not getting the message! Why couldn’t he just have asked ‘Can I fuck you?’- ‘No, you can’t!’ And that could have been the end of it. On the othe ahnd it made me think about the times i’d tried to pressure wonmen into sleeping with me. The seductive voice, the tentative caresses and finally the desperate pleas for casual sex. Now i knew how they must have felt.

When the alarm went off in the morning, I jumped up and packed away my bed at record speed, crying:

“Right! I must be off then!” He made me stay for breakfast and took great delight at the fact that I ate heartily as if he were proud of me. I watched his cooking procedure carefully as he fried the eggs from his farm and made sure that he wasn’t slipping in any sedatives. I almost switched the plates when his back was turned. Whilst we ate, he told me of the four stallions that he kept, who never fought, as they ‘loved one another’ – contrary to what others might say.

Back in Pakistan, Asmat gave me the address of a guesthouse that he owned in the hill-town of Ziarat. He told me that I could stay free for a couple of nights and eat with the steward there. He dropped me off on a road going into the hills and with the help of some locals, I got a ride in a dusty old truck going North. I had to slump my neck down to sit in the tiny truck cabin, seemingly designed to obscure as much of the view outside as possible and I squeezed in between two grinning bucktooth youths assisting the bearded old truckie. He never made a sign that he was aware of my existence.

It was such a beautiful day, that I was thinking about jumping out of this crawling metal beast to enjoy the early evening sunshine. The driver was clearly telepathic because he shunted the truck to a stop and we all piled out to the side where a stream flowed in the roadside ditch. It was wash-the-truck time. The driver threw buckets of water at the wheels and undercarriage, not troubling overly to miss his assistant who darted and dodged with a piece of rag, wiping away the grease between each shower of stream water; the drips tickled the tingling chains hanging from the side as they ran down to the road.

As we got going again, I clambered up the ladder on the side to sit on top-a luxury of slow-moving transport in Asia-and I lay back to enjoy the crisp blue sky. I discovered with delight that we were carrying a load of melons. I pulled out my knife and within minutes I was quenching my thirst on this dry and dusty road with succulent slices of fruit. I managed to consume two and a half of them before I had to leap down for my turning to Ziarat.

The fork in the road was by a police checkpoint and they didn’t understand what I was doing there. Our small exchange of words was friendly at first but became more exasperated as they prevented me from flagging down trucks, insisting that I couldn’t get any further that day. Eventually, as the sun sank lower I submitted to the weight of circumstances and accepted their offer of hospitality.

They gave me a bed on the floor of the chief’s room, inside the compound. They fed me roti and meat and I had to answer their questions about Princess Diana for the hundredth time in the month since she’d died. I could have made a fortune on the journey if I’d been selling badges and T-shirts of the dead blonde. I began to wonder if I should have broken into sobbing despair at the mention of her name-such seemed to be their expectations.

Seeking sanity, I strolled out into the rocks to enjoy the sunset and met a mangy-looking dog in need of company. I often feel sorry for dogs in Muslim countries, as they’re generally scorned as unclean creatures. Maybe they were all reincarnated Hindus who’d accumulated bad karma in past lives. When I gave it a little affection it suddenly became wide-eyed and maniacal. I had to keep its gyrating head at a distance by employing the age-old trick of bending down as though I was going to pick up a stone. It backed off fast.

In the morning I hopped on a minibus in order to escape from the police, who were keen that I should stay for a few days. I thought it better that I should clear out quick lest they decided to force the issue. My hopes of a free ride were dashed by the 50 rupee fare, which left me with just 20 rupees in my pocket. Tiny habitations could be seen on each side of the gently sloping valley through which we shuttled. Farmhands or shepherds lived in humble abodes of wood, straw, canvas and tin, that were hardly much larger than the space required to crouch about or lie down. It looked like a bare sort of life and I hoped they lived elsewhere when winter came.

Ziarat was a small town with quite a few guesthouses to accommodate the moderate amount of tourism it received in season, attracted by the reputation of the area as a green and beautiful place of peace and quiet. Now there were no other travellers to be seen and though we were not all that high up, I immediately sensed the atmosphere of a mountain village. My nose went wild at the transporting scent of the wood-smoke that brushed the air and I felt like I was in the Himalayas already.

At the address I’d been given, I found a group of kids to play with and they taught me my 1 to 10 in Pashtun, the local tongue of the Pathan people who live across West Pakistan. When the steward turned up he took me over to the guesthouse. I lost my breath entirely as he opened the gates and led me down to a ridiculously beautiful garden with 100 colours of blooming flowers swaying in the breeze and six or seven apple trees standing around, all heavily laden iwith fruit. I was given the key to a large, carpeted room and told to come over to his place for lunch at 1pm.

I sat in stunned bliss on the short-mown grass as fortunate sole occupier of a grand guesthouse. I munched huge, red apples, reflecting that sometimes the cards really do fall right. It made up for all the hassle with the police and I’d been graced with the perfect opportunity to rest, recuperate and contemplate the meaning of this 6000 mile trial of endurance that I’d set for myself. William Blake appeared beside me, singing:

“Ah Sunflower, weary of time,

Thou countest the steps of the sun;

Seeking after that sweet golden clime,

Where the traveller’s journey is done!”

It was the first day of October and after just two months on the road, Pakistan seemed to have arrived right under my feet. The Journey to the East had been all too simple and easy. Modern transport has taken a lot of the romance out of travelling as once this distance would have taken years to traverse. But I suppose if I was that bothered by the ease of automation, I could have started to walk the distance. I spent two days in this small town, making yoga on the lawn and melodising with my clarinet in the mornings until it was time to go to lunch at the steward’s house. I’d be sat upon a chair in the corner, whilst the bearded custodian tinkered with the smelly kerosene stove, hand-pumping the fuel cylinder as the flame spluttered furiously. He’d cut up onions and tomatoes for the traditional salad and then serve me with the best of the meat, veg and rotis, waiting until I’d finished and made my grateful leave before they’d tuck in themselves.

Then I’d hike up the hill to find a good spot for meditation; gazing out on the grassy ridges or sometimes by the sheer drop of a gorge with its sweet echo. I’d usually be seen dashing back down a few hours later as evening often caught me unawares. More than once I had trouble finding my garden. Once safely home, I’d lay down on the lawn and star-gaze for an hour or so, with yet another apple between my teeth that were recovering their bite for the world.