('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
WHAT DID I SAY?
Carpets on the ceiling, carpets on the walls and, less surprisingly, carpet on the floor. From amongst the array of patterned teapots, the tea vendor chooses one, places a handful of green leaf tea inside and from his urn fills the pot with boiling water. The pot is placed alongside two china bowls on a wooden tray alongside and brought to us.
As I wait for the tea to brew, I study the pot, which has signs of having been broken many times but been successfully repaired with the use of tiny metal rivets. No sugar is laid out as in each bowl has been placed a large lump of crystal sugar which gradually dissolves over the course of several top ups of tea.
After travelling the whole night what we really need is a slap-up breakfast and then to lie down on fresh clean cotton sheets so we look about optimistically hoping that we obtain these delights.
Presently, from the squat hotel across the road come signs of life, a bunch of fellow foreigners who are taking the morning air. We make ourselves known and cross over for a chat with them. Helpfully, they show us inside their hotel, which proves clean, neat and very inviting. From talking to these guys the purpose of them staying in Kandahar becomes clear to us. Simply to smoke lots of hashish and have an easy life.
'Don't get cash sent to you in Afghanistan,' comes their friendly advice, 'it'll never get through! If you're sending letters, make sure the postage stamps are franked while you're there, else as soon as your back's turned the stamps are off again!'
There is something about he sleepy atmosphere of the hotel, which decides us against staying here. Instead we try our luck at hitching a lift and fortunately a truck pointed in the general direction of Kabul stops to give us a lift.
'Why do you think they have concrete roads here?' I ask Yolanda.
'Search me,' she responds vacantly.
Apart from the ritual halts at chaay shops nothing much happens this morning. The places we stop always seem to have a carpeted area set apart from the chaay shop for the faithful to bow, prostrate and mutter their prayers.
The lift takes us on to Ghazni, some seventy kilometres short of Kabul, and as it is but early afternoon we keep hitching.
A beaten up old double-decker bus stops for us.
'Pool naderi,' I call to the driver who beckons us to get on anyway.
We climb upstairs and sit at the back from where we get a good view of the surrounding area, which is as ever seems to be miles of fairly barren dusty and rocky terrain, dotted with the occasional village. As we speed towards the capital it occurs to me that having declared ourselves penniless we have to first break company with our driver before we can pay for anything. When we make the occasional stop we are unable to buy any fruit or cigarettes, so we become eager to sever company with the bus at the earliest juncture, and impatiently await our arrival in Kabul. But when the bus pulls to a halt somewhere on the outskirts of Kabul, it proves difficult to separate from our driver as he wished to look after us!
In spite of the bus driver's discouragement, Yolanda and I set off on our own on a road we assume will take us to the centre of the city. It leads us through a modern housing estate with neat detached dwellings for the wealthy occupants. We go to cross the road and find myself knee-deep in filthy odious sludge as between the kerb and the pavement lies a deep drainage ditch filled with God knows what.
'Shit, how revolting!' I exclaim in disgust.
I go and beat upon the door of a nearby house whereupon a man appears and I point to my leg.
'Water!' I demand, he being a local resident I hold him to some extent responsible for my misfortune. He shows me to an outside tap and helps clean the mess off. The leg of my jeans and my sock and book are sodden but at least they are clean, so we resume our walk and trudge on into the heart of the city.
After finding a cheap hotel we dump our luggage in our room and set out again determined to top up our energy levels, we find a café where we tuck into some fried eggs, some rice and some fruit. Re-energised we decide to go and do some shopping. Bootlaces, hair clips and reels of cotton are on sale from the street vendors. Yolanda wants some shampoo and I am surprised to find she has the pick of many western brands. We want some cigarettes too, and discover an unusually wide choice of cigarettes available on the stalls; which display wooden racks of king-size packs from Russia, from China, from USA and even Great Britain, cigarettes at half the price they would sell for in London.
The gathering gloom forces us back to the security of our hotel, for the dimly lit streets seem to threaten danger and we do not need more excitement, we just need to sleep.
* * *
We find the new day extraordinarily sunny and hot again. We get out to explore the city and go in search of bank to change some money, only to discover that today has turned into a national holiday to mark the death of Egypt's President Nasser. So, it appears we will have to stay another day in Kabul. Just as I am weighing up our situation, I catch sight of an old friend!
'Anthony, you again? How are you doing man?'
'Hi Paul. Hi Yolanda. You've done pretty well getting this far. I've only just arrived myself.'
It looks to me as if Anthony is not well, but I think better than to mention it to him.
'We had wanted to move on today but they've closed up the banks, so we're going to have to stay in Kabul until they open.'
'Nasser! Yes, I heard the news. But look, you can always change your money on the black market,' he suggests.
I hearten to the news that we might still get leave Kabul, after all
'Have you got your rupees yet?'
Anthony goes on to explain that here one can buy Indian and Pakistani currency at a very good rate.
'Be careful though, old Pakistani notes are worth less than the new ones, about seven eighths of the value.'
'How should I know the difference?'
'The old notes are bigger, oh you'll manage it,' he replies nonchalantly.
By following his directions we soon arrive at the market area where we discover several shops each with a man of immense size sitting in front of a large iron safe. From a quick check from shop to shop we find the going rate of exchange and I am soon holding fist full of Indian and Pakistani currency notes. None of the banknotes looked very old or big so I assume things have gone well for us and while we are here we also take the opportunity to pick up some more Afghan money. I check that I have been given the correct amount, there being twenty-five Pakistani rupees to the pound or thirty Indian rupees.
We look around other shops and booths that sell clothes, some of which, such as the waistcoats and dresses, are actually antique but are hung amongst brand new garments. Here too are displayed old muskets and beautiful old musical instruments, small multi-stringed affairs with dried cracking animal skin on them. I give one a twang but am unable to coax anything like music from it.
Walking down an alley a tent proceeded towards us from the other direction. I look more closely and see eyes twinkling behind the cloth grill, evidently someone is lurking there.
'I wouldn't want to be a woman here,' Yolanda exclaims.
We catch sight of what seems to be river that winds it's way through Kabul, but it has all but dried up, and is now just a meagre trickle of water and some shallow putrid puddles lying in a concrete riverbed.
On our way back to our hotel a man stands in our way!
'Hashish, opium, heroin, cocaine?' he offers. I look about us and see just a few feet away is a traffic policeman. The dealer asks us again what sort of drugs we want; his voice must be audible yards. I attempt to gauge his reaction of the policeman. He appears unmoved.
'Very cheap,' the voice continued.
'No, no thanks,'
We move away.
We meet with other foreigners. They all seem to like Afghanistan a lot; some of them wish to travel North to visit the towns of Bamian and Mazar Sharif. Pictures of the colossal rock cut Buddha situated at Bamian are the only images available as postcards here.
'You should stay man,' a fellow traveller tells us, 'what do you want to go to India for?'
'We're only on transit visas. We have to be out in a couple of days more,' I explain.
But I have no great desire to get off the main route or to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary. Our experiences with the guy wanting to rent Yolanda and almost getting myself knifed have done nothing to make me want to stay on here longer than we need.
So it is that the following day we are up fairly early making our way out of the city in the hope of getting a lift onward, possibly we might even make it to Pakistan today. The road out of Kabul is crossed by the dried up stagnant bed of the river and on the city limits we come upon an incredible concentration of people dwelling in makeshift tents. I am in no doubt that these are the poorest people I have ever laid eyes on in my life.
There are barely any cars or lorries on the road, and we walk for a long time without coming close to getting a lift. But as the old saying goes, 'All comes to he who waits', and in the fullness of time a vehicle pulls up.
It is a gleaming new Japanese version of a Land Rover; the driver speaks immaculate English and offered to take us to Jalalabad. Once we are past the town of Sorabai, the driver suggests that we might like to visit his home. His house is luxurious even by western standards and it has an immense garden at the back in which many exotic species of flowers, plants and trees grow. The house has an air of tranquility, spiced with bird song, which emanates from the garden; it is enchanting and the prospect of staying here further is tantalising. A servant brings us tea and cake, all seems well in the world.
A sharp ring at the doorbell interrupts the peace. We are introduced to the visitor who is a Russian. Our host excuses himself and leaves the room; we are left the three of us.
'No thank you,' I answer.
'Have drink with me?' he growls, but we decline his offer as politely as we can.
'Whisky, vodka what you drink?' he persists.
Our host returns and the Russian and him exchange words.
'Drink, drink, what drink you want?' the Russian asks again.
'No, nothing, nothing to drink,' I answer.
Our refusals seem to anger him.
'You have sweet maybe? You want hashish sweet?'
His mood is dark and moody, he keeps on asking us why we refuse his hospitality, so we answer as best we can but he cannot be pacified, in fact he becomes downright offensive.
Clearly we cannot stay and I anxiously await an opportunity to leave. I am on my toes when he leaves us on our own for a few moments; I go in search of the driver of the jeep.
'Can you take us away from here, to a local hotel,' I ask our Afghan host.
He agrees to my request and in silence he drives us into town and stops outside the very posh looking Hotel Jalal Abad. We step out of the jeep and the Afghan brings us our luggage and offers his apologies for the conduct of his friend. But it is not enough, I feel really angry.
I stand facing him. I glare at him.
'You have let us down. You offered us to stay with you and then you put us through all that. I think you should pay the hotel.'
He looks ashamed. I notice a crowd is gathering about us. The Afghan looked nervously about and presses a handful of change into my hand. But without taking my eyes from his I throw the coins across the road in contempt. I wonder what he will do? But he doesn't wait around for me to say another word and gets back into his jeep and is gone in an instant.
We leave the money where it is and go in search of an affordable hotel and we are lucky in finding one for 10 Afghanis; had never had a cheaper room (back in England the cost of this room would barely pay for a bar of chocolate). On the downside the room has no lock and offers little privacy, as there are no curtains in any of the windows. But we improvise by hanging up bedsheets and joining them together with safety pins acquired from the manager, a gentle fellow who brings us a gift of nuts and raisins.
Since we have made enemies of the well-to-do Afghan and his friend we decide not to go out tonight and after moving our bed in front of the door for the room we get an early night.
* * *
Leaving Jalalabad early next morning we do not wait about for a lift but carry on by foot and after a while we find ourselves in need of a toilet and being close to a house we ask we might use their toilet. We are in luck as the owner speaks a little English.
After using the bathroom we shout our thanks to the owner and leave.
'Incredible!' Yolanda gasps, 'It was just a hole in the floor! Did you see what happens to the shit? Did you? You know there is a pig wandering around underneath? I saw it!'
I agree with her, it was a shock.
'Mind you,' I point out, 'there was a roll of toilet tissue wasn't there?'
'A pig, there was a pig down there! I can't believe it!'
Fortune smiles on us in the form of an oil tanker, which pulls up to give us a lift. Like most commercial vehicles here it is painted in a rich variety of colourful designs and motifs. The journey goes well until we are diverted and the tanker has to bump along a rough track cut through a strip of jungle. Along the way a figure emerges from out of a hut and stands blocking the way, brandishing a long syringe. He seems rather eager to stick the needle in us and it is hard work convincing him we don't need another jab; he looks so incredibly stoned and seems so crestfallen and disappointed that we refuse his offer. God knows what we might catch if we complied with him.
Our lift in the tanker is soon over and we have little joy at obtaining another lift, so, when we see a smart Mercedes-Benz bus approaching we make a quick decision to hail it. We are happy enough to pay the few 'Afs' for a ticket to the border and are soon settled down alongside our fellow passengers and watching a chicken strutting about; the atmosphere is jovial and lively.
When the other passengers, particularly the women, see a truck coming towards us they start cowering and praying loudly; so the driver slows to approach the oncoming vehicle at a mere few miles per hour! After we pass the other vehicle everyone seems to break out into screams of jubilation. I look on bewildered and wonder how they would cope with traffic conditions in England.
The bus frequently stops to let off and take on new passengers, and at one stop a young western couple with their three-year-old son get on. They explain that they have travelled all the way from England, taking buses all the way. They reassure me that the young lad is faring well.
'Just so long as you eat and drink local, everything's alright,' he advises. I have to take his word for it.
'Don't overstay your visa or they fine you. The longer you stay over, the more they fine you, if you can't pay ... it's prison!'
I ask him about the concrete roads: -
'Russians made the roads. Americans built the laundry in Kabul. The Russians and the Yanks are in hot competition to outstrip each other.'
I tell him about the Russian hospitality we were offered in Jalalabad.
'They can be pushy, sure! But did you not know that the British all had their throats cut at Jalalabad years ago? Only one guy escaped out of thousands. By the way, you know of course that Pakistan was part of India until recently? Then the partition.'
We arrive at the border and the Afghans soon deal us with, then we walk to the Pakistani border post.
I am euphoric; we are actually entering into what was, until recently, a part of India. So I stride over to the customs officer and shake him by the hand.
'Pleased to meet you,' I sing out.
He responds by offering us tea and cake, which we eat in the shade of the customs hut. Once we have had our tea we get on with filling the inevitable forms, I can answer most of the questions now from memory and soon we are through.
This is really something; here we are standing overlooking the world famous Khyber Pass! Wow. I stop and stare around taking in the view over the trees and the road winding down through the pass. I notice the traffic uses the left-hand side of the road here, just as it does back in England and we do not walk far before a car stops for us; a modern American affair; a cream coloured Cadillac. Down the pass we glide with hills appearing and disappearing on all sides; amongst them there are tendril-like railway tracks that disappear into dark tunnels.
As on previous occasions on our journey I again sense that something is not right. The driver seems distracted, he keeps looking in his rear view mirror at the car behind which seems to be tailing us. Perhaps I am getting paranoid but I could swear that our driver is even making signals to the other car driver. I am worried that he intends to drive us off the pass, so I ask him to stop, but he ignores me. I ask him again but he will not stop so I wrench his foot off the accelerator and we gradually slow to a halt. Hurriedly, we haul ourselves out of the car and make our way on foot concluding that we have again torn ourselves from the clutches of danger. Yolanda lets out a long moan.
'Oh my hat! My straw hat. I must have left it in that car.'
At length, after walking quite a distance we come to a bend in the road and pause for a moment. I look up at the stone wall of the pass and see the regimental coats of arms of the many forces that have served here. I pondered awhile reading them, 'Gordon Highlanders 1932', '22nd Cheshire Regt. 1933', 'Punjab Regiment' and there are so many others.
A bus hurtles down towards us so I begin shouting and waving for it to stop, as I am fearful it will pass us by un-noticed.
'What were you doing man? It's dangerous here,' a voice calls.
On board the bus we are reunited with the English couple who explain that this is bandit country and that everyone is issued with bus tickets back at the border. Apparently the Baluchi tribes that people this land are quite beyond the range of national police as they continue blood feuds for generations.
Fumbling in my pocket, I feel some crumpled paper.
'I wish we'd known about the tickets before,' I confide to Yolanda. 'It could have been curtains for us.'
Once we are clear of the pass the bus motors on to Peshawar where most of the passengers get off. We watch them alight and get into any one of the many gaily-decorated motorcycle rickshaws that ply for trade nearby. We decide to go on to the next town hoping that it will be less busy there.
At Nowshera we easily find a hotel but and set off in search food. Everywhere we walk we are stared at and followed about; it is as though they have never seen a tourist before. That many times we are offered directions or to go back to people's houses for meals and finally we take refuge in an eating house. After a plate of curry and rice we start to walk back to the hotel only to find we are pestered even more than before.
Eventually we make it to our room, which with its old-fashioned dark heavy furniture feels very gloomy. Maybe the hotel was built long ago in a different age, the place feels decidedly spooky. Our room has many windows and it doesn't seem possible to block the higher ones but we do manage to draw the accessible curtains tightly together before lying down on the double bed to sleep for the night.
A few minutes elapse and I start to drift off to sleep'
'Aaaa-a-a-a-aggghhhhh! Paul, Paul, look….!'
Quickly turning the light, I find Yolanda on the verge of hysteria as she points up to the higher windows where a cluster of faces are peering in at us, I see a man withdrawing back through the fanlight over the door. Jumping out of bed I shout at them and they all disappear from sight, then I climb up and secure all the windows and doors as firmly as I can. I reassure Yolanda who has calmed a little and we decide to go back to sleep, so we turn the light off again.
Again Yolanda screams out and turning on the light again confirms that indeed the faces are back. This time I race off to call the manager. I wonder that he knows what I am talking about or that he even cares, but I hope he has got the message and will make sure no one else disturbs us in the night. I decide to get my penknife out, just in case I need it to defend us.
* * *
When I awake in the next morning for a few moments I wonder where I am, and then I notice the open penknife tightly grasped in my hand. The events of the night now seem distant and unreal. It is time to move on.
Today we get lift in a car going to 'Pindi' from a friendly Pakistani man wearing a blue anorak which appears to have been imported from Britain, I wonder that he wears such a jacket on a hot summer's day.
'You are coming from Englandstan, yes?' he asks, 'You are very welcome here in my country, you and your girlfriend, yes. But, I ask you this. Why are we not welcome to visit U.K.?'
'I'm sorry to hear that,' I answer him sincerely. I cannot answer his question as I have absolutely no idea what policy Britain has for dealing with the issue of foreign visitors. But I take his point, it does seem unfair that I can go where I want and he cannot
The cantonment of Rawalpindi proves to be an eye opener, in the market place we can't help noticing all the beggars and cripples who cry out for attention.
'Baksheesh!' they implore.
There is a man without any legs who has but one arm who pushes himself along on a small trolley.
The sights and sounds of this busy marketplace threaten to overwhelm so we extricate ourselves from its clutches and find ourselves a place to stay. We find an old-fashioned looking hotel (again); one with beautifully constructed wooden landings and terraces. Even the vendors downstairs seem to belong to the past, with their wide assortment of boiled sweets and beautifully displayed coloured fudges; the designs on the cigarette packets speak of the past, too. Also on sale at the tobacconist are green leaves into which preparations spices and nuts are added.
'Paan,' the cross-legged old vendor informs me.
Paan is chewed and then spat out, leaving the mouth stained bright red. The bespattered pavement all about bears witnesses to the popularity of this pastime. The streets all around throng with crowds of people and the air carries the sound of busy traffic with horns tooting a variety of notes and tones creating some sort of faintly melodious street orchestra. Carefully stepping over a stream of dark liquid in the gutter we make sure not to slip on discarded fruit and vegetable matter as we pick our way through the old town of Rawalpindi. Horse carriages and the motor scooter taxis race dangerously around the narrow roads. Despite all the filth, the grime and the noise, I feel very happy to be here and to be able to enjoy the collage of busy colour about me and the friendly attitude of the people, all of which enlivens my spirit.
The following day we decide check whether or not a rumour we have heard is true, that we need a visa in order to enter India. First we have to find the bus stop in Muree Road and we take the grey bus to the 'new town' of Islamabad. This developing area is intended to be the new capital of Pakistan and this is where the diplomatic enclave is situated. We find the Indian Embassy and I am reassured I need no visa but that Yolanda, as an Italian citizen does need to apply for one. So she settles down to settles down to the task of filling out the forms, and then we went go in search of lunch. At a local restaurant we discover the delights of dish called Peshwari Biryani, a rice dish topped with sliced egg and served with naan an oven-baked bread. The meal is delicious.
Then we return to Pindi and spend the rest of the day idling, and wandering about the market place. There I see a chemist and buy myself a bottle of cough linctus, as my throat feels unbearably sore. After downing the cough mixture I start to feel a little drowsy, I start to wonder what it contains. I suspect they must put opium in it
'It's reall-l-l-ly strong stuff,' I tell Yolanda, ' I feel re-a-l-l-y stoned….!'
* * *
We are up early in the morning and get the bus again to Islamabad, and revisit the Indian embassy only to discover that the visa had not been issued yet, so we ask to see an official. When at last someone appears he states that a visa will not be ready for several days and that its validity will be for six weeks only.
'That's ridiculous, she needs a six month visa at least,' I point out. I try to reason with him but he seems to have already made up his mind so I remonstrate with him further, 'If the British were still in charge she wouldn't even need a visa.'
'McPherson!' he shouts commandingly.
An unbelievably tall and muscular Indian appears on the scene and orders me to leave. Naturally, I refuse but he is not so easily put off. He grabs me bodily, lifts me off the ground and ten attempts to eject me from the building. We engage in a brief struggle before he carries me out and he dumps me outside on the pavement.
I sit there for a few moments, temporarily in a state of disarray.
'Are you alright?' Yolanda inquires.
'What's happened to your watch?'
I look down; my watch has been wrenched from its strap.
'Idiots,' I moan, 'Stu-u-u-upid idiots. What did I say?'
We move away from the embassy and start walking towards the shopping area. We do not discuss the incident, but walk along in silence for a while. When we get to the shopping precinct I locate a watch repairer there and pay him 50 paisa (half a rupee) to fit a new spring clip on my watch. We bump into a couple of fellow travellers, Jonathan, an English lad, and Donna, a Brazilian girl who encourage us to join them at the local campsite. We tell them of our difficulties over getting a visa that will enable Yolanda to stay in India for a reasonable length of time.
'Go to Karachi. There's a High Commission there,' they advise.
I can't help feeling that the official was being mean with her.
Chatting with Jonathon and Donna makes me feel a little better about the situation we find ourselves in. I can't help feeling that the official was being mean with her. If only they had offered her a decent visa, if only they had listened to us, although I don't suppose I made matters any better by reminding him of the days of British rule. I just couldn't help myself.
I can't help feeling that the official was being mean with her.
'You've still got a bad cough, you should take something for it,' Yolanda points out.
Back in Pindi I replenish my supply of cough linctus, but over the next few hours my state of mind seems to take a nosedive. I become obsessed with the idea of getting married to Yolanda here in Rawalpindi and spend ages endlessly talking about it. We go for walk and are met by a spectacular sight as the sky darkens suddenly and issues forth with a torrent of ice pellets, which bounce as they hit the ground, each one, the size of a half-crown. The redbrick post office nearby positively glows in the strange light!
Minutes later, all is as it was before, the hailstorm is spent and the sun reappears.
After one more night in Pindi we set off in the direction of Lahore, I am still crazed from the doses of linctus, but I feel we should lose no time before moving on. We have a huge distance to travel down to the port of Karachi, which is a massive detour right across the other side of the country. I hope, wish and pray that word of us does not seep through to Indian embassy in Karachi, as we really need that visa in order for us both to enter India.
We are offered a lift to Jhelum by a rather old-fashioned looking middle-aged couple. He wears a flat cap, and with his swirling military moustache and continual praise for the British, he seems to be a fascinating leftover of colonial rule.
'Why are you going to India?' he asks, 'All those so-called holy men with no homes, just drifting around on charity!'
We listen attentively.
'Those Hindus pray to trees you know? Huh! We'll give them trouble, you see if we don't. We'll show them what we're made of! Praying to trees indeed, huh!' he complains.
I just can't wait to get to India. It sounds great!
We pass through a heavily wooded area.
'Wow did you see that bird?' I rave. 'Pure turquoise colour, the most magnificent bird I ever saw.'
Soon our lift is at an end and we are alighting from the spacious car I swing the door closed.
'Ahhh, ah, ah, ohhhhh,' I gasp. My thumb is crushed in the car door
Our offers me a linen handkerchief, winding it around the throbbing sore seems to make it feel a little better.
The couple motor off leaving us on a bridge overlooking the River Jhelum where a signpost warns that photographs must not be taken. What's the problem? Do they expect an attack from India, I wonder?
Following our habit do not wait for long before starting to walk along the road, under the lush foliage of the overhanging trees which protect us from the severe heat of the sun. The trees bustle with birds that fly about above our heads.
We have not gone far before a young man, who tells us he is a student, befriends us and offers us to go back to his home for a cup of tea. We accept his invitation of hospitality and return to his quarters where we also meet his friends. I notice that, despite the very hot weather they all wear long thin scarves around their necks, and long shirts and leggings too. We enjoy their cultured conversation and share some refreshments with them but decide against staying on with them, for experience has made us wary of believing that full-blooded males make good hosts!
Walking past the gates of the local park we explore the local area in search of somewhere to say, and after walking a good distance out of town we eventually find something half resembling a guesthouse. There we eat a meal of omelette and paratha (flat round bread smeared with oil) and a drink of hot milk before settling down to sleep on crude rope-strung beds in an upstairs room. But as evening turns into night, I am aware that more and more guests also come to lie down in the room. But it is now too late to find elsewhere else, as the darkness has set in with a vengeance. So I spend an uneasy night trying to keep myself awake, watching over Yolanda's sleeping shape.
* * *
The bright sun is up and the guests are already gone by the time Yolanda surfaces and he seems blissfully unaware of the comings and goings of the night.
It is a long walk along a country road before we rejoin the main highway, along which we sample impressions of the local life here. We walk along with lots of children who carry their bags of books and packed lunches, grown ups cycle by on heavy looking 'sit up and beg' bicycles weighed down with loads of surprising size and weight.
On the main road Massey Ferguson tractors, ox carts and camels all pull heavy loads and energetically jostle for position in the stream of traffic. Carts are piled so high as to resemble mobile haystacks.
From a roadside stall I buy a packet of bidees, a tapered primitive cigarette which has a small quantity wrapped in a bay leaf tied and knotted neatly with red cotton thread. For the equivalent of an English penny I get a packet of twenty-five.
Watching the over-laden vehicles trundling past us, we despair of getting a lift away from here. The smoking tickled my throat and stirs my hacking cough; my tired eyes remind me of my lost night's sleep.
It seems that the only traffic on the road is local farmers going about their business, but we wait in hope that someone might eventually stop for us. It looks like being a long wait today, but before we become totally dejected we spy two white vans heading toward us. Miracle of miracles they both stop and a lanky westerner jumps out of one of the VW microbuses and greets us.
'Hop in man,' the American invites us as he walks over and introduces himself.
When I get in to his vehicle I realise Pete's van has no windscreen.
'A stone,' he explains, 'but it's okay, in fact with the gauze over it for protection, it is better than having the glass, it's cooler anyway!'
Pete tells us that he and his two mates (who are both in the other van) have been exploring the other side of Pakistan and are now set for Karachi where they plan to sell their VWs before they return to the States.
I try to light a bidee but every time I strike a match it is blown out by the steady stream of wind through the vehicle. When Pete tries, he cups his hand around the match and lights up easily. I am impressed. But I make a mental note to buy some real cigarettes as soon as we get the chance.
I am puzzled about the sound of the VW, there seems to be something amiss with it, and whatever problem there is seems to be getting worse as the van begins to lurch from time-to-time. Pete confides that he has known about the problem all along, that the front brake has gone faulty and is now becoming permanently locked. We lurch fairly continuously now but he doesn't seem particularly bothered so I try not to get alarmed.
The more I spend time with Pete the more I am convinced he seems to be ill. All is explained when he explains to me he trying to purify his body by subjecting himself to a starvation diet!
After hours of driving along the fractured road Pete at last announces his decision to pull up and have a rest. It is our first chance to go and meet his friends in the other van.
'Taste this!' Pete challenges, handing me a bottle of drink, 'Guess what it is man?'
'Umm, apricot, peach or maybe orange,' I guess, 'I don't know really. What is it? It's fa-a-anta-a-astic!'
'Mango. Really wild isn't it?' he enthuses, 'Shezan or Benz we drink them all the time.'
'Have you all just come back from India?' I ask.
'No? We've just been cruisin' around Pakistan,' he beams, clearly surprised that I assume they have been to India.
This microbus couldn't be more different than the one we have been travelling in, Pete's is virtually empty and this one choc-a-bloc with possessions. One of Pete's friends shows me a hash pipe, presumably he is offering me a smoke. Proudly he points out that the pipe is made from a shark's tooth!
But my attention is already taken; I have just spotted a guitar, a Gibson Jumbo guitar.
'Bob Dylan had one of these on 'Nashville Skyline',' I point out.
'Yeah cool,' says a voice enveloped in cloud of smoke.
There is a chat about when and where to stop for the night and it is decided to call it a day and stay where we are. Thoughtfully, Pete offers Yolanda and I to sleep in his van, whilst he joins his mates in van number two.
* * *
The next morning we make a fairly early start, but make slow progress as the road is surprisingly rough and broken, so we encounter numerous roadworks, where we are diverted onto ever rougher and more treacherous dirt tracks. The air is thick with dust thrown up by the wheels and rocks repeatedly impact upon the wire gauze windscreen.
Pete is still on his starvation diet, so he doesn't tune in to our need to stop for snacks, so we don't get much to eat very much today. Eventually both vans stop again and we all hang out for a while together. We sit outside a western style cafe this evening and drink 7UP. Perhaps because of hunger or because I am still glugging the cough mixture I feel very 'out of it'; my brain whirrs, I can't stop talking. From out of the shadows come pastel puffs of colour, whilst the lights about me buzz and shimmer.
It is our third day of travelling with the Americans and we get to the city of Hyderabad, a sleepy place lying on the banks of the Indus River. Whilst here our friends introduce us to the delights of the local milkshakes, delicious. Whist we are here in Hyderabad we take the opportunity to walk about a bit and to go and buy some fresh fruit. It appears that our companions are really in earnest about getting to Karachi in a hurry today and booking into a luxury hotel, for on our return to the vans we are away in moments.
On our way out of the city I spot a vast lake, whereupon I cry out. 'Look, look! There's a house under the water. Look, you can see the roof sticking out! Look over there's another and another.'
'River's flooded,' Pete informs matter-of-factly, as though it were an every day occurrence.
The problem with the front brake has been getting worse, and it is clear that Pete is getting really concerned about it. At the first sign of a garage we pull in hoping to get it checked over by a mechanic. A man appears covered head-to-toe in grease, and after hearing what is wrong gets underneath the vehicle.
An hour or so and Pete drives over to where we are sitting waiting, he appears jubilant.
'I've paid him with a long sleeved sweatshirt. He was really happy!'
'The brake, did he fix it?' I ask.
'We'll have no more trouble with that!'
'He put a new one on?'
Pete laughs nervously. We get back into the van.
'I told him to rip the brake out!' Pete admits.
I am concerned, I wonder whether only having the one brake will be enough, but Pete seems confident enough and there appears nothing else to do, other than trust that nothing occurs during the last few miles to the end of the journey.
Thankfully, it is not long before we have our first sight of the huge and sprawling port of Karachi and soon the two vans are parked up in a side street and we are all crowded into another milkshake bar. The Americans sit and exercise their imaginations as to what to order, and soon they are downing honeyed shakes with combinations of different fruits.
'What are you going to do now?' I ask then.
'Find the best hotel in town, have a shower and then crash out. I'm wasted!' Pete sighed.
So it is time we go our separate ways, and we wish them all the best before setting off in search of accommodation. But we discover, after trudging around the grimey streets of the city, that though it is still early in the day, there are no rooms available (bar at one hotel which we think is rather too expensive for us). So as everywhere else seems to be full up, we turn in desperation to the Salvation Army.
'No, not together, definitely not,' the official there states emphatically, 'Maybe, if you come back later we might find you separate lodgings but I'm not promising anything.'
As he admits that there are rooms here it is obvious he is just being awkward and extremely un-Christian. But Yolanda and I have no wish to make ourselves beholden to him and before turning to leave I make my riposte: -
'They refused Jesus too you know? And you call yourself a Christian! .. Shame on you!'
We are in a tight spot and we brood over it awhile before deciding to go back to the hotel room we had turned down on account of the excessive cost. Now the man behind the counter tells us that they have no rooms left anymore.
'Show us the room! Now!' I growl.
In moments we have a key to our room and are soon enjoying having somewhere to lie down. Before long the high humidity causes us to get terribly thirsty, we find a tap and drink pints of warm water.
In the evening I go downstairs in search of a café. But the heat is just so-o-o-o oppressive; it is almost an effort to breathe. As I wait to be served I look about me, and see a huge fly hovering around the light, and other different species of monstrously large insects, all attracted by the lights, flying around the airless room, the SIZE of them ... ENORMOUS. When I look outside and see other sights that puzzle me I reckon it must be time to get back upstairs
Clasping a bottle of fizzy orange I stagger back upstairs to the hotel room and call out to Yolanda;
'Wow, it's been like being on a bad trip or something. There are dragonflies down there as big as your hand! And that's not all… there are people wandering around down there who seem a bit odd, without any clothes on either. Weird! Really weird! Just too weird!'
To 'Via Rishikesh' Chapter 16