('On-line' text of)

'VIA RISHIKESH - A HITCH-HIKER'S TALE'
An account of hitch-hiking from England to Europe,
North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan & India in 1970

by Paul Mason
© Paul Mason 2006

 

Chapter 13

OUT OF THE STERLING BELT

Long after the first signs of the rising sun on the new day, there are still no signs of life at the café. Parched and rattling we are desperate to break our fast. When at last someone comes to open up I have already fully digested the menu and am more than ready to order.

The interior of the café seems oddly familiar, the net curtains, plastic tablecloths and the counter surface covered in that sticky-backed plastic stuff that eventually chips at the corners. The atmosphere, the fittings and the fabrics and not least the menu, all of them would fit in well home back in London.

In time our breakfast is served and we wolf down our double fried eggs and beans on toast, washed down with cups of coffee. We are now nicely set up for the day. I pay for the meal with Turkish money and the owner thoughtfully gives us our change in Iranian rials, thin silver coins with the image of a lion standing against a sunset on them. Before I leave a pocket a chipped glass salt shaker, which I figure we need as fresh tomatoes taste all the better for a little salt sprinkled on them.

The border post receives the first travellers of the day, a vanload of men who clearly project an air of confidence and affluent self-importance. Apparently they are Indians who have taken the overland route out of their country and are travelling to Europe. The meeting is a good one, I for one feel that it cannot be that long before we get to India now.

From the other direction comes a long articulated container truck, the driver parks up nearby and then strolls purposefully towards the cafe.

'Any chance of a lift?' I ask.

'After! After! First I go eat,' he snaps.

I suppress my excitement but it rather looks as if we might have a good lift lined up.

On his return he fixes me with his dark eyes.

'You come England?' he asks.

'Yes, from London.'

'Me I come also. I coming London,' he tells us with evident pride. He signals us to climb up into the spacious cab the truck shifted, and then he drives slowly towards the customs post.

Passport control is soon dealt with us, and I have another stamp for my collection.

Our lorry gets the 'all clear' to go, as it is a sealed consignment and needs no inspection; I don't really understand why but presumably there is some sort of international agreement on such things?!

Our driver seems quite an energetic man, he is tall (and dapper in his own way), dressed in a red checked shirt and sharply creased casual trousers. He soon informed us that he is headed for Teheran. Brilliant luck! This lift promises to be a very long journey, perhaps our longest yet and our driver seems a lot of fun chatting gaily as he does in broken English.

Apparently he is undertaking a removal job and mentions with a confidential grin that he has picked up other (female) hikers on his way. 'He's a saucy one' I think to myself, 'but he seems safe enough'.

The cab is much higher than on most vehicles and what with the smoothness of the tarmac road, travelling is really a pleasure now. But as we slide along endlessly across the dry arid plain, the temperature seems to get hotter by the moment. To our right a chain of low dark mountains looms and provides focus for my attention,

'An eagle, an eagle, I just saw an eagle back there,' I rant.

Perched on the peak of one of the low hills the magnificent specimen was standing, I log the sighting in my mental I-Spy book. The stillness of this part of the world feels divine and fortunately our driver seems very relaxed so we don't become uncomfortable when conversation lapses, as it does from time to time.

'You like picnic?' our driver asks.

After the long morning's travelling the mention of a meal seems almost too good to be true.

The vehicle pulls up on the side of the road and our driver climbs up on top of the cab and opens a compartment and extracts all the necessary bits and bobs from a cold box there, including fresh eggs and butter.

We walk a little way away and come to a good spot to picnic, a grassy bank by a pretty narrow river. Soon our driver has hot tea brewing and omelettes cooking on his Primus stove. Everything he says and does reinforce the confident image he projects, one of unwavering pride and self-respect. Better than having an inferiority complex I guess.

After a very good meal we all lit up cigarettes, and I think to show him the Turkish signet ring I came by in Istanbul.

'This Farsee name, Saphiee,' he exclaims pronouncing the name with passion. The name is inscribed back to front so that when it is pressed into a hot wax seal on an envelope or letter the name can then be read properly. The ring is not authentic but this does not take away any of it's curiosity value.

'If we ever have a girl I would call her Saphiee, it's a lovely name. Don't you think so?' Yolanda enquires of me.

'It's got charm, I suppose it's a variation of Sophie. I once knew someone called Sappho, Sappho Korner, daughter of Alexis Korner.'

I sing aloud the lyrics of 'Rosie'; one of his songs:- 'Whooah Rosie, Whooah gal, Whooh Ahh Rosie, Whooh Ahh Gal, When she moves you know she really rocks, when she moves you know she really grooves…'

The trees that grow by the river are enchanting, I have never seen there like anywhere before. A fish splashes in the waters and I hear some birds chirruping. The sounds are quite delicious, we have been well fed, and all seems well with the world.

* * *

Back in the truck we resume our journey refreshed and fortified. The passing hours are marked by nothing than the movement of the sun for in this wilderness, out of sight of mankind, signs of human habitation are few and far between coming as something of a shock.

A town lies ahead of us and my eyes light on structure of immense beauty amongst other lesser buildings. It is studded with stones of many shades of blue, predominantly that rare and serene colour, turquoise (from the word Turkish?); intricate patterns spread over the curved surfaces of this holy structure, the most wondrous building I have ever seen.

As our truck forges on I puzzle over the many people I see appearing to carry mackintoshes over their arms. On a day so incredibly hot the sight is just too bizarre, in fact it defies understanding. I can only guess that they must have some foreknowledge of rainfall. As we got closer I stare intently at the people holding rainwear, and then am startled to find the articles draped so elegantly over peoples arms were in fact incredibly long, wide flat breads. I can be forgiven for misunderstanding the situation, since I had never seen such large breads before. I mention my error to our driver who laughs so uncontrollably that I worry for him.

Night comes on but gradually, but when darkness arrives it feels so intense, the tiny stars that twinkle and sparkle so poetically offer us no light, so here on our journey becomes a little hazardous as we have only our headlights to guide the way. As we ascend into a hilly area our driver explains that we will be travelling on for only a few minutes more.

'Soon, soon we are stop.'

We drive on, not for a few minutes, but for more than an hour!

Eventually, we arrive in front of a restaurant, which lies snuggled in a fold of the hill. The building is a wooden structure with numerous windows, which puts me in mind of photographs I have seen of Swiss chalets. If the border cafe was a little incongruous then this was definitely a close relative, only this one is apparently closed for business. However, the owner emerges and greets us cordially. We all sit down to light supper and a drink before our driver sets about arranging sleeping arrangements. For reasons better known to him he seems to assume that we will all be sleeping near one another. Shades of Algeria!

The driver arranges his bedding underneath his lorry, probably the best way to ensure that if the vehicle were to be stolen he would be the first to know! Yolanda and I decide to spread our sleeping bags across the veranda of the restaurant, it is comfortable enough there but I suspect that a very cold night lies ahead of us. I am just so thankful that I don't have to perform another all-night vigil, watching over the body of my girlfriend. Gratefully, I settle down to sleep under a Persian sky.

* * *

Our nights sleep was uninterrupted and with the light of morning we get up to roll up our sleeping bags and do our ablutions. We are treated to continental breakfast (coffee and pastry) at the restaurant and then we get the signal that it is time to go.

This morning takes us onward through many, many more miles of semi-lunar landscape, interrupted only occasionally by a brief flurry of vegetation. But the road is not quite as empty as on the previous day, now there are lots of cars about, lorries and oil tankers too. I note that the vehicle numberplates are displayed in both normal text and Arabic script, which gives me an unexpected opportunity to learn the Arabic numerals. The problem lies in the vehicle ahead staying there long enough for me to establish a relationship between the two sets of numbers.

The closer to Teheran we get, the faster the truck moves; today our driver drives as one possessed and he also seems less inclined to talk. Eventually though, something causes him to slow down and he hauls on the brakes. Then he whips out of the cab and darts off towards a makeshift tent by the side of the road and disappears inside. Meanwhile we are left for a long time to just sit and imagine just what lies behind his curious behaviour.

I keep watch on the tent, hoping to see what is going on there. Our driver spends a long time there before beckoning us to join him. We are introduced to the locals, who seem a jolly enough crowd and he seems to wallow in the image of his being an international driver who is travelling with two Europeans on board.

We soon discover that the tent is the business end of a fruit farm, which is selling melons and grapes. We all set to gorging ourselves on these green pearls which prove compulsive eating and we soon gnaw our way through a few pounds of juicy grapes, leaving only one or two brown ones, wrinkled and shrunken. I gaze at them a moment and then I give a start. I notice for the first time that a dried grape resembles a raisin, and also remember that the French for grape is raisin. I suppose everybody knows this link, but I had never spotted the connection before. I had not realised this simple truth in eighteen years, what else have I missed!

Our driver purchases a couple of crates of grapes before we all return to the lorry. On the road again and we simply tear along, my eyes turned to the rugged mountain range to our left.

'Elburz mountains,' the driver informs me.

'Beyond? Beyond the mountains?' I ask.

'R-o-o-s-sia,' he answers with his teeth clenched.

Though this is undoubtedly a good lift, I would really prefer to be going at a more moderate pace. But it is clear that the driver has something on his mind and it begins to affect the atmosphere between the three of us. Things are getting uneasy.

He stops the vehicle once more and this time he swings one of the wing mirrors around and proceeds to study his face. Taking a little pair of scissors from a bag he trims his moustache, then he gets out a razor and soap and proceeds to have a shave. After this he donned a fresh set of clothes and resumes his place in the cab. He is now in an exuberant mood, thankfully.

'I see my wife,' he grins.

With gestures none too subtle he indicates why he is so eager to see her again. Sex!!! He now engages us in talk about pubic hair and his dislike of it. Yolanda looks particularly uneasy as he further states his belief that women should remove all such hair from their bodies, particularly between their legs. I can't be sure whether he really believes what he is saying or whether he just wants an excuse to talk about 'private parts'. We are coming to the climax of our lift, for we are shortly to arrive at the city of Teheran, the capital of Persia, I just can't wait!!!!!

We breeze along, overtaking and overtaking, it cannot be that further before we will have our first sight of the city, but as we near the outskirts of Teheran our driver brings the lorry suddenly to a halt at the start of dual-carriageway. Though we are surprised that he gives us no warning of his intentions, we shift ourselves, clamber down the few metal steps and jump to the ground, all the while giving thanks to him for the lift. He waves us a cheery goodbye, revs the engine and pulls away at speed.

After travelling on the open road, with only occasionally other vehicles about, it is a shock all of a sudden to be seeing so many cars speeding about. The surprise is heightened by the expression on the faces of the people inside the cars; for the most part they appear unsmiling and tight-lipped as they drive by us. We stand and watch the streams of cars coming and going into Teheran, frustrated that we have come so far, and are now so close. But patience being our paymaster we resign ourselves to standing idle, waiting on the whim of fate. As ever, in such circumstances, someone eventually stopped and offers us a lift. The drive is longer than I expect, but when the city of Teheran doom looms I am staggered at the concentration of modern structures that seize my attention over the countless older more modest buildings.

Now we are arriving in Teheran we must decide where we want to go first….'

'Post Office. Could you take us to Main Post Office please?' I ask hopefully.

We strike lucky, our lift is happy enough to drop us off there on Avenue Sepah. The post office is a modern and well-built affair, surrounded by rolling lawns, flower beds and flags waving on high atop tall poles along the perimeter of the grounds.

When we get inside I am struck that the place feels more like a large church or cathedral than a government building, it is cool and air-conditioned with an atmosphere of peace and serenity. About us the post office workers move about their work slowly and with evident self-importance. I search out the appropriate window where I find myself facing a middle-aged lady counter clerk, she is well turned out with makeup very carefully applied, and she is wearing a stylish European looking dress with a broad scarf of thin material draped around her neck and shoulder.

'Post restante? Mason?' I earnestly enquire.

The stylish lady slips away and when she returns she carries a letter in her hand! A letter… A letter for me… I immediately recognise the handwriting; it is from my mum! But I do not open the missive immediately; I wait to open it until we are comfortably seated outside on the lawn. And then, with a pen, I open the envelope very slowly and carefully, and open up the letter.

Apparently mum is fine and she writes that she is glad to have heard from us. I read the letter slowly, savouring her every word, and reading it time and time again. Yolanda sits at a slight distance away, and when I am finished and I look over at her, she asks if she too can read the letter. I am really glad that we have heard from my mother, it is so reassuring and homely.

We are now set for exploring the city and finding somewhere to stay. Anthony had recommended we find a place called the Amir Kabir. Fortunately it appears not to be too far away and by chance we meet another European also in quest of the same place. We walk together, and as we walk we talk, apparently he is a fellow countryman and is set for Australia intending to settle down there and build his own house. I am impressed that he is that organised to have planned this trip and have a goal at the end of it too.

I am confused as to where Anthony was recommending that we stay, for apparently Amir Kabir is both the name of the street and of a popular hotel. On our way along Amir Kabir Road I am totally amazed that we see someone there we recognise!

'It's Anthony! Hi Man. What a small world…. How you doing?'

As we walk along together, we exchange our news. As we approach the Hotel Amir Kabir Anthony sets himself to persuade us to stay there, but point out that since it is early in the day we have hours to make up our minds. Yolanda and I make off, traipsing further up the street; which seems to be a haven for motor spares businesses; tyres and hubcaps litter the pavement spilling almost onto the street itself. Although it is hot, we are shaded for much of the time by many trees that line the route.

We check out the Mehr Hotel where we are shown a basement room. With the vegetation outside the window and the potted plants and rush matting inside, the room has a faintly exotic feel, it has a natural, interesting air. Whilst we enjoyed Anthony's company back in Turkey, we now feel disinclined to shack up in a hotel that acts as a magnet for western travellers generally. We take the room and after locking our bags inside, we set off to see the town. Having secured this room, we are not only financially better off for our decision (at thirty-five rials it is a good ten rials cheaper than the competition) but importantly we are independent too.

The first thing to do is to find somewhere to eat so we begin to explore the honeycomb of backstreets near to the hotel. We find a suitable place, which is cheap and cheerful, selling bowls of hot steaming chickpeas, tomatoes and potatoes for four rials per portion (for five rials we get a large flat bread too). The food, washed down with copious quantities of water, tastes really wholesome and nutritious, if a little bland. The eating house uses what little space it has to maximum advantage, by the use of an iron staircase so that customers can eat 'upstairs'. However, if I were to stand to my full height I would become severely concussed.

Sitting in a truck for two days is pretty wearing, and the glare of the sun and enduring the ever-present noise of the engine. Now it is time to give ourselves a break from all that and unwind for a couple of days. We return to the hotel and set to washing off the dust and dirt and have a rest. Actually I feel almost uncomfortably clean after my shower and also extremely tired, as does Yolanda too. Though it is several hours to nightfall we decide to turn in, so we slip into our sleeping bags, turn over and turn off.

* * *

I open my eyes slowly and try to figure where I am. I look about the room and see the sun peeking in through the foliage behind the low windows. The room feels cool and fresh, I am glad we decided to stay here, there is an atmosphere of peace and harmony here, unlike anywhere we have stayed so far on our travels.

Today we will need to change some British currency, for so far in Iran we have been running on our remaining converted Turkish money. After a brief freshen-up, we set off to see some more of the city.

We walk back towards the Hotel Amir Kabir and decide to pop over and see the others, which entails crossing the main road. We have observed that drivers here seem to disregard all known rules regarding sensible behaviour and instead steer haphazard courses at maniacal speeds; in fact the Amir Kabir resembles a glorified bumper car arena. The drivers' total disregard for one another and for pedestrians is most disconcerting. Since all commonly adhered standards of safety are missing here, I can only assume that driving licenses are issued here without reference to the drivers' ability. It is no exaggeration to describe our situation as potentially fatal.

Now, the prospect of darting blindly across the traffic flow had little appeal and after repeated attempts to cross the road, we take a leap of faith and rush across to the other side, arriving indignant and breathless.

'They're crazies,' Yolanda pants.

In a state of nervous exhaustion we make our way our way to the hotel where to our surprise the main door opens and out come our British friends.

'What can I do?' the Englishman asks me. 'I can't get any money here in Teheran. Cheques from a British bank are useless here. We are out of the Sterling Belt.'

'What do you mean?' I puzzle.

'They don't deal with British banks. Only hard cash.'

'American dollars are best,' Anthony eagerly suggests.

Though this chap has no lack of funds, after all he has enough to set himself up in Australia and build a house there, he cannot arrange to receive a penny of it here. It is ironic that we who have so little money are actually better off than him until he gets things sorted out!?!

'If you get really stuck we could let you borrow a few rials,' I offer 'See you around.'

When we are safely out of sight and out of earshot I allow myself a grin and a chuckle at his expense, after all he was so very cocksure of himself yesterday.

We find the main street of Avenue Ferodowsi where I see the signs of many moneychangers; the rates at the asgari are listed and set so we know we will not get burned. We will get about two hundred rials to the pound so I feel we can afford a few days here in Teheran.

We are now in search of a café to have breakfast but on our way we pause to look at the numerous clothing shops that offer an array of western style shirts, blouses, jackets and trousers we searched for the elusive cafe for breakfast. We pass a grand looking building, the National Bank Melli Iran and then we go across the Avenue Naderi. Reposing at the end of a tree-lined avenue is the British Embassy, safe behind vast gilded black wrought iron railings and guarded by a sentry. To my eyes the whole place looks extremely ostentatious. We continue on our way and move further up Feredowsi where we come to an area which reminds me very much of Bloomsbury in London. Here there are grand arcades with hairdressing salons; there are continental cafeterias and up-market clothes shops all set amongst the graceful architecture. Swiftly we leave this quarter and find we enjoy better luck back down on Feredowsi.

At a restaurant adorned with the ubiquitous red and white sign, we study the menu and find they offer a wide array of European fare.

'A bit expensive! They do breakfast though… Let's treat ourselves. You only live once eh?'

'Why shouldn't we?' Yolanda asks rhetorically, then adds, 'There's a lot of richies around aren't there?'

'Yes, they all seem frightfully well off.'

After a good breakfast, we decide to go back to the post office once more and as we walk along Feredowsi a young guy introduces himself and asks us if we would like to see the city, in his company. Since he seems pleasant enough we take him up on the offer and he takes us on a tour of the city in his car.

As we pass the landmarks of Tehran our newfound friend names them for us.

'You have heard about Jimi Hendrix?' he remarks casually.

'What about him?' I answer.

I had heard from Anthony that Jimi had been seen in Morocco. Maybe he is now in Persia.

'He's dead,' the man tells me.

'What? Surely you've got it wrong, someone else perhaps. Who did you say?' I ask.

'Jimi Hendrix the guitarist, suicide I think.'

'I don't believe it,' Yolanda moans loudly.

We are near to the post office and I ask him to stop. When we are alone together, Yolanda and I stand facing each other in silence. Could it be true, Jimi who veritably crackled with positive energy, really dead? It is Yolanda who breaks the silence.

'Do you believe him, that Jimi is dead?'

'Yes and no,' I answer glumly.

'Maybe it's another guitarist. Perhaps he's got it wrong.'

'On the other hand ...?' I mumble, lost in thought.

We revisit the post office find no fresh post for Yolanda or myself, and we wander slowly back to our hotel. I am thinking about Jimi, my hero, the guitarist and dreamer extraordinaire.

'Foxy lady, I'm coming to get ya..!' I sing quite loud.

By the time we get back to our room the words and music to many of Jimi's songs comes gushing forth through me. Strutting up and down the floor of our bedroom, I wrench the chords and solos off a load of his songs, strumming and tugging the strings of my imagination, I set myself to perform each and every song I can remember. For 'Burning of the Midnight Lamp' I treadle at a make-believe wah-wah simulating the sound, making different shapes with my mouth, nasal sounds escaping my nostrils.

'Oh don't. Stop it. Stop. He's dead, he's dead.'

'His music isn't! Never will be and that's for sure.'

High as a kite, that's how high I feel right now.

'Well mountain lions found me there, waiting, and they set me on an eagles wing,' I drawl. 'Yeh, eagle's wing baby.'

'How could you? You just keep reminding me he's dead,' Yolanda pleads.

'Well maybe he's not,' I answer thoughtfully.

Towards the end of the day we go out and scout around the local streets for fruit and vegetables. We are successful and we scurry back and organise our supper, which consists of fresh baked flat bread, onions, tomatoes and grapes.

'I've had ample sufficiency as my grandfather used to say,' I sigh.

Yolanda smiles.

'I feel like a cup of tea and after that maybe we'll go to bed?' I suggest.

'I can't sleep if I have tea or coffee before I go to bed.'

'You must be losing... uh .. your sweet little mind,' I sing, mimicking Jimi's style some more.

* * *

Though we would dearly like to explore some more, Yolanda and I have agreed that we should avoid the temptation to stay in Teheran too long. We should press on and to that end we decide that this will be our last day here. We want to make the most of the facilities at the hotel so we set ourselves to wash our hair and our clothes and as we searched out a bucket, we begin to discover the rest of the hotel. In the midst of it all, we find an attractively paved courtyard and here, amongst the balustrades, fig trees and potted plants, are located the bucket and the communal tap. We find a fellow guest sitting here resting, a Yugoslavian lad.

'Have you heard about Jimi, Jimi Hendrix?' I ask him.

'What?' he answers me cautiously.

'Someone told me he's dead.'

'Oh, really?' he replies; though he appears unmoved by the news. I can't be sure that he has understood properly. But perhaps he is just being 'cool', yes that's it for on whatever topic we speak, I find him inexplicably distant.

We leave the washing hanging in the courtyard, even the sunshine has difficulty finding it's way here, the air is hot so it should dry well enough.

***

The next day, as we make ready to leave, Yolanda discovers that the clothes are still damp, so we are forced to pack them away anyway and get on our way.

Hereabouts few speak any English and of those that do, they have little proficiency, so we cannot glean any information. We are unsure which route to take, for we have no plan of the city, so we just rely on our intuition as to where we should head in order to find a good spot to hitch from. But we are in no particular hurry, so we dally on the way and nose around the back streets behind the main road discovering a market place of eager traders there. Yolanda is eager to sample some of the unfamiliar edibles on display.

'Ooh look…! Pistachio nuts… I love them! Oh, and look they've got pine nuts too, I haven't had those since I was at college,' she exclaims. By college she means the convent school she attended outside her hometown of Siena Italy.

'Yoghurt?' she asks a trader uncertainly.

'Yaourt,' he replies rolling his head to and fro.

Yoghurt has only recently been introduced into London shops in the form of slimmer's desserts, these being exclusively Ski brand. Up to now I have not been tempted to try it myself. Yolanda is keen to sample some here, so the shop owner served it to her in a shallow bowls, it looks unappetising with thick skin on top of it.

'Yuck!! It's off, it's sour, really horrible, ugh!' she hollers disdainfully and begins to rage at the shopkeeper.

She storms off without paying and tries the yoghurt on several other stalls before realising that they can't all be 'off' and she shamefacedly admits she has been wrong. She asks for some sugar this time and apparently it makes it taste more palatable and she eats it up hungrily. After this we get on with our walk across town.

Trekking through the avenues of uptown Teheran I glance up at their names. This one, the Avenue Shah Reza seemed interminable, frustratingly so. As I fight to control my impatience my attention lights on two people walking some way ahead of us. I wonder that one of them looks slightly familiar?

'Isn't that the Yugoslav cat?' I ask Yolanda.

'Where? Oh maybe.'

We quicken our pace and soon catch up with them.

'Where are you off to?' I ask them breezily.

'Same as you, probably,' Yani answers smiling.

With curiosity I look at him. There is something that makes him quite is different from the other travellers we have met.

'We're hitching to Afghanistan,' I tell him. 'What about you?'

He just nods smiles a big, big grin.

I discover soon discover that he and his friend are from Yugoslavia ad also hitching to India. Together we all walk through Tehran, Yani and Jorg, Yolanda and myself, until eventually we find a convenient place to hitchhike from. Having dropped our baggage down beside us on the pavement we stand around a little ill at ease with one another.

I break the silence;

'Jorg. I think maybe your name in English would be George?' I suggest. He stares at me, possibly without comprehension, as I soon discover that in any language he was a man of few words.

'Since we're all going the same way, shall we share a lift?' Yani suggests.

It is now my turn to be cool and I turn to Yolanda for her response, only to find she is transmitting her 'no comment' expression.

'All four of us?' I ask, 'well I guess we could give it a try.'

'You have cigarette?' enquires Yani.

I nod and pass him one.

'And one for Jorg, yeah?' he adds.

I get the distinct impression that they are both financially worse off than us. If we are to travel together this could eventually put a drain on our resources if we are no careful.

No one stops to offer us a lift; perhaps it is too much to expect anyone to pick up four bedraggled foreigners. Perhaps we should split up and stand separately; we might stand some sort of a chance. As I toy with what to do about our situation, a big black Rover car lumbers down the road towards us, all shiny black paint and gleaming chrome, of the old type with a humped high roof. The car stops just a little way ahead of us. Frankly I am surprised and find it unlikely that the driver understands that we are all hitching together.

'All of us?' I ask nervously.

The driver and his friend get out and place some items on the back seat in the boot of the car, then gesture for us all to get in. We are just about able to squeeze our baggage and ourselves in, after which the car moves off very slowly. The pace is sluggish, almost unnatural, but who am I to complain?

Yani becomes our self-elected leader and spokesman, which comes as a relief as I do not want the responsibility of speaking on behalf of the four of us. I reckon Yani would make a good businessman, the guy is very sharp. I take to staring out of the window, noticing that we are now leaving the built up capital and going north. Yani leans around to announce that he has agreed, on our behalf, to join the Iranians in a picnic. I groan quietly inside of me as I wish to get on, not stop off having picnics with middle-classed middle-aged men.

We continue to maintain a ludicrously slow speed, as we negotiate the winding, climbing road, but it is not much more than a half an hour before we arrive at a local beauty spot. I am heartened to discover the boot of the car contains lots of food and drink, but am intrigued to know why they packed enough for six people. Surely they hadn't intended to 'do a Bunter' and scoff the lot themselves. What a queer assortment we are, all sitting around doing rough justice to the spread. But it is a nice leafy spot, and the food is good, life could be a lot worse, for sure.

'Paul, you are music man. Sing a song!' comes the request of one of the Iranians.

'Really, I don't feel in the mood, just now, maybe later, huh,' I mumble.

The other Iranian shouts his encouragement and claps his hands. I notice that Yani is staring at me, somewhat defiantly.

I carry on eating.

'Come on Paul, sing us a song,' the driver calls to me.

I look again at Yani and know I was beaten. I capitulate and falteringly give a rendition of Donovan's hit; 'Mellow Yellow'.

'I'm not a singer, I play guitar,' I plead afterwards.

'Good. You good. Thank you,' said the Iranian courteously.

Dossing around with little to say is not my idea of a picnic and Yolanda evidently shares these sentiments.

'I hope we go soon,' she whispers to me.

But we do a lot more wishing and waiting before there is a move towards getting back in the car. I am surprised that Yani should find these guys company worth being so polite to them, I wonder what he enjoys about their company. By Yani's expression I guess he is up to something but I can't think what, I just know there is something on his mind. Whilst he is chatting to the driver he suddenly stops speaking, takes a deep breath and after a dramatic pause asks: -

'Opium? You have opium?'

'Opim, opim, Yes, you like? You come to our house. Plenty opim,' the Iranian answers excitedly.

My heart sinks. This journey had been strain enough already and I have no desire to prolong it. But Yani appears to be delighted with his discovery and takes it on himself to accept an invitation for us all to stay the night at these men's house.

'Thanks a lot' I think to myself.

We arrive shortly before nightfall, it is a nice European style house and I look forward to finding a room to lay out my sleeping bag. The Iranians produce a quantity of the sticky black drug Yani is after and together they set about smoking it. As it has to be mixed with tobacco, muggins here has to lose more cigarettes. Whilst they get down to their smoke indoors, Yolanda and I go outside where the air is fresh and sit down on bench in the garden at the back of the house. Some minutes later one of the Iranians joins us, and immediately I can see he is, well, out of his mind.

As it happens Yolanda needs to use the toilet and therefore asks where it is. He pointed vaguely to the back of the garden.

'Here, you can go here,' he tells her.

It is obvious that she cannot tell whether he is joking or not, so at first she doesn't move, but in desperation she goes off to find a secluded spot and relieves herself. As she pulls up her underwear she notices that our host is now but a few feet away from her, his eyes fairly popping out of his head.

He has 'ideas', that becomes obvious to her. Wherever she goes, he follows her. She is getting very anxious and she confides in hushed whispers how she fears for what the night might bring.

I had indulged in opium myself, some years back, and am aware of its cycle of effects. First there is the initial nausea, then extreme hunger which is followed by the inability to move. When this is all over then the charm of the drug comes to be found in the dreamy easiness and heightened sensory perception. But clearly these Iranian guys are old hands at this game; they are already at the sensory phase.

With Yolanda sticking to me uncomfortably closely, I go in search of the Yugoslav cats, and find Yani and Jorg totally smashed and completely out of it slouched against a wall, their speech is slurred and only barely intelligible. Following us are our Iranian 'hosts', after they enter the room they appear angry to find us sitting all together. Now, it's one thing to be a little stoned and disorientated, but quite another to get oppressive and heavy. In fact their faces not only look crazed, they seem actually to have murderous intentions towards us, things are really moving on at an alarming rate. As the only guy who is straight the responsibility to look after everyone hangs heavy on me, it is obvious that I have to get Yolanda to safety somehow.

I bide my time and wait until the Iranians leave the room and then I try to whisper my plan to Yani, but he just sits there staring, his eyes unfocused, a slight smile on his lips. So I try again;

'These guys are dangerous. We are getting out. How about you?'

'Are you sure Man?' asks Yani suddenly looking me squarely in the eyes.

'We go!' I state emphatically.

I can see it takes him an immense effort, but Yani tries to pull himself together and at least he gets to his feet. Then, each clutching our baggage the four of us slip out unnoticed through the front door and onto the road. Fate has been kind to us so far, but now we need to do our bit.

'Run for it!' I urge the others, and we all race off blindly into the darkness just as fast as we can go.

 

To 'Via Rishikesh' Chapter 14

 

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