In the next weeks, I’ll be publishing 20 short stories on work and travel experiences I’ve had. I’ll be publishing several in advance here. Here’s one as fresh as if it happened yesterday.
In 1973, at the ripe old age of 22, my then wife Annie and I took the fabled overland trip from London to Australia. We’d been living in London, where I worked as an accessions clerk in the library of the Natural History Museum and Annie worked temping as a typist.
After getting the ferry to Dieppe, in France, we hitchhiked to Brindisi in southern Italy, took a ferry to the Peloponnese in Greece, a bus up to Athens, a cheap flight from Athens to Istanbul, and then got local buses through Turkey, where we spent nights with monstrous bed bugs in Sivas and Erzurum in the west of the country. The buses then continued all the way across Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, with third class unreserved trains from Amritsar to Delhi, Agra and then to Calcutta in India. After losing perilous amounts of weight to travelers’ diarrhoea, we surrendered to a cheap flight to Perth and took a bus across the Nullabor plain to Sydney, our home.
We were adopted by a beaming Iranian girl, Farah, on a bus in Turkey, returning from au pair work in Germany. She insisted we stay with her family in Tehran. It was during Ramadan. On the first full day with them, they prepared vast quantities of food for us and watched us eat lunch. We repaid them by blocking their squat toilet with toilet paper, necessitating the arrival of a plumber and an assembly of curious neighbours. We traveled down to Isfahan to marvel at the turquoise mosaic covered mosques. We lived on pomegranates, pistachios, lamb kebab and pilaf, crossing the vast Iranian plains toward the magnetism of Afghanistan, a place that had fascinated me as a boy. We were warned by police to not go into the very fundamentalist Mashed, so changed into another bus at a station on its outskirts and then moved onto the border with Afghanistan.
We had arrived at the Iranian side of the border about 2pm. It would close at 4pm. With about ten minutes to go, baksheesh negotiated and eventually extracted by the border guards, we were let through and into the no-man’s land between the Iranian and Afghan border. Because the Afghan side of the border also closed at 4pm, this meant we were obliged to stay in the only hotel in the no man’s land. This cosy arrangement, presumably benefiting all parties concerned, was known to every traveler on the route. The travel writer Paul Theroux, wrote about it in his 1975 book, The Great Railway Bazaar.
Boys who looked about 10 swarmed all over us offering palm-sized black hashish for a dollar. While we had both smoked dope in Sydney and London, we were wary enough to avoid it here. We had crossed the border with some German guys and a Yugoslav woman about our age. They had all immediately bought hash and sat in the garden smoking it before dinner. Shortly after, the boy who had sold it to then arrived with several Afghan border guards, pointing them out. They confiscated the Germans’ passports, saying that they would be returned after they paid ten per cent of the amount of money each border crosser had been obliged to note in their passport as we crossed on the Iranian side of the border.
The Yugoslav woman was taken away by the guards to a nearby garrison building. When the Germans went over to buy back their passports, they saw she was being raped by the men from the garrison. We were all helpless. We didn’t even know her name. There were no phones, no Yugoslav or Australian embassy in Kabul (which was weeks away for us) and the rapists seemed to be a mixture of border guards and soldiers who might have been the only authorities to contact. God knew what might have passed for police in such a place.
Welcome to Afghanistan.
The next day we went onto Herat, 300km from the border. It was a dusty town with tree lined streets. We stayed for a week, the start of a month in that unforgettable country, then still a kingdom. Our hotel had no bathroom, but there was a pit squat toilet that smelt so rank, you had to hyperventilate before going inside so that you could hold your breath for the minute needed. With the state of our bowels, that was easily time enough. There was a public bathhouse in the main street that had a women’s night once a week. However, the boss man there allowed Annie and I to go in together on a men’s night and have a private room that you could lock from the inside. We scoured the walls and door for any peepholes, but found none. The water was hot and the floor tiled. It was bliss.
We also stayed a week in Kandahar, a place that would decades later headquarter the Taliban. One afternoon and policeman told us to turn away from the market we were heading for. “Tribal people are there. They will cut your throat”, he told us. The capital Kabul, with its Chicken Street mecca for western travelers, sold lapis lazuli jewellery, wolf skin fur coats and leather horsemen’s knee boots.
This was in the days well before the internet, cell phones, fax machines and credit cards. You carried cash and travelers’ cheques, and picked up mail poste restante at the post office. Some sold their blood at local hospitals, where you were invited to push your arm through an elasticised hole so they could take whatever they wanted. We gave that a miss.
Part of the adventure was to do it all as cheaply as possible. An old diary I found shows what we paid for transport from Istanbul to when we entered India: about $25 each in 1974 prices (see table below). A mud floor and wall ‘hotel’ in Herat in western Afghanistan cost 15 Afghani a night, with rats, a horsehair and straw paillasse mattress, and complimentary hashish or opium, usually smoked with the hotel owners who liked to play the travelers at chess. There were 40 Afghani to the US dollar. The decrepit buses we traveled in regularly broke down, till the driver’s clanking under the bonnet for an hour got them going again.
Herat street scene Kandahar
|Journey||Duration||Cost per person|
|Istanbul-Erzerum||24h||85 Turkish lira|
|Erzerum-Iran border||8h||30 lira|
|Border=Tehran||14h||350 Iranian rials|
|Mashed-Afghan border||14h||100 rials|
|Border- Heart||4.5h||50 Afghani|
|Kabul -Peshawar||8h||400 Afghani|
|Peshawar-Lahore||9.5h||18.5 Pakistan rupees|
|Lahore-Indian border||2.25h||1.75 rupees|
We finally we took a bus from Kabul through to Jalalabad, then through the Khyber Pass and into the even more lawless North West Frontier region of Pakistan. All day long we saw wild looking Pashtun men on small horses and camels, swathed in bullet belts with ancient looking rifles slung on their backs. Urchins and mangy dogs ran alongside the bus. When we stopped, small crowds would gather around in silence, utterly expressionless, staring at us without ever smiling or trying to touch or speak with us. It was unsettlingly eerie.
Peshawar is the first city you come to in Pakistan after passing through the Khyber Pass. The Australian cricket team played a test match and one day game there in 1998, but security has since stopped further international cricket there. It was an unprepossessing place with a chaotic, unmemorable downtown area with shops selling the same cheap plastic junk, cloth and drab furniture that held no interest. After an hour or so of wandering about and being stared at still more, we were persuaded by a taxi driver to spend the rest of the day with him for about $3 in his deteriorated Morris Ambassador. He would show us the sights, where the people lived and some nice countryside near the town.
It was all dreary beyond imagination, with more unremitting staring all day, few trees and people eking out a living sitting all day next to a rag in the dirt displaying a few onions, fly infested goat meat or metal bric a brac, like locks, buckets and engine parts.
Late in the afternoon we unexpectedly came upon a circus tent pitched in a dry, featureless park. In the hour that followed, I saw what my life might have been.
We got out of the taxi and made our way to a series of wagoned cages constructed of iron and hardwood. They looked like pieces out of a Frederico Fellini set from Satyricon in ancient Rome. Some housed monkeys and depressed, mangy bears, but one had a liger, the result of a male lion mating with a female tiger to produce some of the biggest large cats known. But it was the young foreign couple who were the most exotic creatures to what rapidly built to another silent crowd of well over 100 men and boys who surrounded us, all utterly expressionless. No women were to be seen anywhere.
Within minutes we saw a turbaned Sikh making his way through the crowd to us. He carried a splendid carved walking stick topped with gaudy coloured cut glass. He introduced himself as the circus owner and invited us to his personal tent for tea. There was no refusing. The crowds parted before the exotic entourage.
Glasses of tea and sweets were brought and we answered his enthusiastic questions about where we were from, what our occupations were (we had long learned to not say that we had no jobs or were students, which brought either consternation or obvious thoughts that we must have very rich parents). We were ‘teachers’. Then a litany of calibrating questions came about the price of various goods in Australia, and the inevitable benchmark question: “how much does an engineer earn in your country?”
It was then that the conversation changed. I remember every word. It went like this.
“Do you know modern dancing?”
Modern dancing? We looked at each other. What did he mean?
“You know, like cha-cha-cha?”
Well, yes, we did. I’d had a particularly progressive teacher who took dancing at school and daringly went beyond the barn dance and the Pride of Erin.
“And do you have bathing costume?”
Well, yes, we had those too. This was very much the right answer.
“Well, I am making proposal for you to join our very good, most famous circus. The best in all Pakistan. We travel all over the country including to the most famous and beautiful Swat Valley!”
We would have our own tent and we would dance the cha-cha-cha in our bathing costumes at each performance. This would be to audiences that we didn’t need to ask about but who would be all staring, silent Muslim men.
I had instant visions of my rapid disappearance, with Annie becoming the exotic consort of the sikh or traded to a local warlord in some valley in the ungoverned north of the northwest frontier.
We said that he had given us much to think about and we would need to contact our families and employers in Australia before committing to this tempting offer. We would send him a telegram with our answer as soon as we heard.
The next morning we got the bus to Lahore, where a solicitous, effusive businessman seeing us studying a town map, insisted on taking us to a cinema where an English language cowboy film was being shown. In the darkness he surreptitiously began to start his grope at Annie’s breasts. We got up and left, with the man following us back to our sub- one star hotel where he tried to force himself into our room.
Dancing in my swimming trunks in a traveling circus in Pakistan was not the life for me.