Thursday, September 15, 2011

Afghan Affair – Curious Case of Carry the Cab Driver

I walked rapidly upon the muddy trail by the river Wakhan looking for our return vehicle to Eishkashim. A month ago, when we had bid goodbye to our interpreter Dawood, we had asked him to send us a vehicle on the predicated date of our return from the climb to the Kheret Village, our road head. We had descended two days before, at least I had, and we had absolutely no idea if any vehicle was indeed coming for us. So I took off on my pursuit to find the driver and the car that would be our only salvation. I had walked for a day and half and had crossed about two vehicles (all going the wrong way with tourists) and yet clueless if we were destined to depart soon enough before our visa expired.

At a place, I crossed a tiny village of few houses, scattered randomly over the wide brown ridges of the hills. And beneath the village, right beside the road I find one of those Toyota Vans that they don’t manufacture anymore and is usually found all along the silk road. These are oversized boxes placed on a chassis of four wheels with no guarantee how far it would go provided you could start one. A thin man dressed in a blue zipped up jumpsuit, aka F1 champions, sat a little far from the vehicle beside a pool, washing his face and hands in the limpid water. He had a round face, thin moustache, and a fixed smile and had ‘driver’ written all over him. There was another lad, much younger, dressed in typical salwar kameez and a turban with unkempt hair and scruffy beard was cleaning the windscreen with a bucket of water. I figured either the vehicle had broken down or the humans have had a breakdown. The van was empty, not even a piece of luggage anywhere and I remotely suspected that this could be the one. Though we were hoping to get a Landcruiser.

As I approached, the driver leapt to his feet and extended his right hand, English style, ‘Me carry, for you.’ In irreproachable English if you haven’t met another English speaking human being in the last 30 days. Surprised, I shook his hand profusely and told him who I was and what my quest is, to which he repeated his earlier statement. Hmmm, I pondered, not a bad idea if he wants to carry me, either within his van or upon his lean shoulders, either which way was welcome.

Though we did not exchange any prearranged signals or codes, neither did he produce any letter of introduction from Dawood to prove that he indeed was our driver for the return trip, I just knew that he had to be one. So I jump into the van, throw my heavy sack to the floor, the other lad jumps in behind me and off we go throwing dust and caution to the wind. As the van chugs and chuckles, I introduce myself once again, in slow, halting pidgin vernacular English. To which the driver turns around and says, ‘Me carry.’ I nod and say that I am happy to hear that he is here to carry me but I would be delighted if he would keep his eyes to the road since any slight deviation could get all of us rather wet and completely doomed for eternity and I had absolutely no desire to become a part of this mighty Afghan river. But I wish to know his name, so at a point I ask him to stop and then wriggle into the seat beside him and again attempt at conversation; this time the driver starts smiling and he pokes his right thumb into his chest and utters with conviction: Me Carry. Goodness I ponder, and then ask, more to myself than to him: Carry as in Jim Carry or as in Kiary (flower bed in Hindi) or as in Kairi (green unripe mangoes in Hindi). He repeats whatever he thought it was and it could well be totally different but to me it sounded Carry, so for me he would always be that.

So we reach the bridge across Wakhan, which I pray Carry won’t cross and would take the high mountain trail, but he turns the van and comes to an abrupt halt just before wheeling upon the first rotten planks. He smiles and gestures his assistant to emerge. I follow his eyes and to my horror notice that the rickety bridge had lost few of its precious planks and there were huge gaps here and there. No ways would this van go across, Carry wished to commit suicide. But I was having none of it, and I began to step out to which Carry gave me a smile of intense mirth as if he mocked my cowardice. Well if he was willing to risk his vehicle then maybe I should stick around.

The assistant bridged the gaps by pushing and pulling planks from other parts of the bridge, which he felt the van won’t be traversing through and then he got few big rocks to settle them all at the right places. The van crawled forward, guided by the assistant from the outside as he kept one eye on our wheels and another on the planks. Neither of the two showed any real fear or concern. I expected to plunge through any second. We groaned and guttered and finally emerged on the other side. Carry gave me his best smile, the assistant hopped in and zoom we went. It took me good five minutes to convince my heart that it could now return to its phlegmatic rhythm. We reached Kheret and waited for the ladies to arrive. Carry slept under the van while the assistant went o chat up with some pretty girls by the stream. I had no idea how long the wait would be so I spread my mat beneath a giant tree and dozed off surrounded by a group consisting of five donkeys, two horses, half a dozen squabbling kids and one old man who was hell bent that I bought his silk scarf.

In due course of time; just like anything else, my companions come down the mountain followed by our porters weighed down under our expedition paraphernalia. Carry springs into action, his assistant (I still don’t know his name, if he has one) crashes the back door open (the door actually comes out of its hinges and crashes upon the earth) and starts stuffing our stuff in no particular order or semblance to sanity. Pat and Chris, fresh out of the thin air up above, eye the proceeding silently, I keep my grass bed and eye the sky with indifference.

Soon enough the van is ready to burst, the assistant puts the back door back again and screws it down and then ties a rope around. Now even if we rolled off the road into the rapid river, our van’s backdoor will go with us. A mixture of greetings after, we are whisked away with a whoosh of squelching tire and belching smoke. The village kids try to keep pace with our rocket on donkeys or foot, but soon give up as Carry floors the floor gripping his wheel with his teeth like a tiger chasing its prey. The village, all its wonderful people and the landscape are all soon lost amidst the dust we raise behind and around and my mind shuts completely as Carry’s radio blasts us with his favorite music. I am sure this tape is a bestseller in Hell’s torture chamber but seeing Carry’s happy face, I refrain ejaculating one of my witty (totally mistimed as always) rejoinders.

No one can hear anything at all above the din (van’s rattle, Carry’s giggle, tape’s prattle) and I can’t hear myself think. I have a strong and adaptive mind so I ask it to start liking the music; after all we might all soon land up in the place where this music would be played nonstop 24X7. Hell after all was only millimeters away from our wheel. No doubt we were in a hurry but not in such degree as Carry would want us to believe. I would have imagined we were flying across the rocks and gravels, only if my teeth weren’t chattering constantly. And then Pat did a grave mistake.

We were zipping along a narrow mountain track, with massive landslide boulders on one side and a sheer drop on the other, falling off into the Wakhan river. As at every turn and twist we were thrown out or in depending upon the centripetal or centrifugal, keeping me guessing at which turn exactly would we either crash into the boulders or go flying off the road, suddenly Pat brought out her camera, the enviable Canon S95. Carry floored the brake instantly, all the way to the ground, as if he had an eye on the back of his head.

All the four wheels locked and we instantly went out of control into a dizzy spin and skid. Carry fought grimly with the wheel, I fought hard with the door trying to fling it open and jump out before we all plunged into the river, the two ladies gasped and screamed from behind and the assistant for all I could care might already be out of the vehicle. In one instant the sheer face of the boulders and mad ensemble of razor sharp rocks loomed in front of my face and in the next the void chasm towards the river; we were slithering like a rattle snake in heat without any traction. When all seemed finally lost, Carry somehow managed to bring the van to a stop. I could actually hear the echo of my heartbeat from the surrounding mountains. Carry turned to me, smiled his best smile and said, ‘photo’. I could have killed him right at that moment, only if I knew how to drive that abominable van. From then on, we decided that no one would bring out a camera, but would first quietly nudge Carry to slow down for reasons of nature’s call. This method proved more humanly bearable but not so efficient since for some reason Carry did not believe much in nature’s call.

As the hours rolled on and we kept rolling like eggs inside the van, we soon realize that Carry could easily have been F1 champion if he knew about it. Nothing and I mean nothing, no potholes, no frothing rivers, no boulders and no obstacles natural or manmade could stop his progress. He was always hunched forward, I wondered how could he fold his dangly legs so close to the foot controls with his chest literally pressed to the wheel and still breathe, always smiling, always ‘Me Carry,’ and take us in and out of every possible ditch on the path. Two women in close confine is always a source of noise, but my companions had long before lost their verbosity and wit and I had completely lost my mind and all my mind wished was to be found outside the contraption into which we were hurtling towards salvation.

We came to a place where the river had completely devoured the track and high waves crashed against the rocks, where previously was the road. Are we going to ford that on a ferry or on the back of one of the camels, I pondered but Carry only slowed down a bit so that his assistant could jump out and precede through the water, testing the depth, current and direction. Soon he was knee deep and then waist deep and then he started to swim, and as he kept getting smaller, my alarm kept getting bigger. I am a dead non-swimmer (a term used in the Indian Navy for people who sink like a stone without flutter).

I jump out of the van, and prefer to rock climb the sheer rock wall to my left and beyond to overcome the flooded river while Carry shows his teeth to me. Pat and Chris follow my example. The van lurches forward and soon is floating like an amphibious armored vehicle. I have no idea how Carry could steer it since the wheels must be off ground for sure and I puzzled further why his engine hadn’t stalled yet, but by some sheer miracle and Allah’s blessings the van made it to the other side. My faith in Allah and Carry went up by several notches respectively. Shortly we arrived at the village of Quaila Panja, Carry’s home and he takes us to his guesthouse and then the real confusion starts.

The guesthouse is large and freshly painted, though completely lacking in design and structure like anywhere else in the valley. It has a large courtyard, two large rooms and two store rooms and enough room for at least five more rooms, yet the pit long-drop toilet is a tiny cubicle way outside the compound where there is no light and water. No wonder Carry doesn’t have much respect or concern for nature’s call and such other nonsense.

His assistant parked the van inside the compound and proceeded to unhinge the back door while Carry welcomed us within. We stepped in and sat on the carpeted floor and stared around the usual assortment of Aga Khan Posters and blankets and bolsters. Soon he brings in a large pot of tea and a tray laden with biscuits, lollies and of course naan. He is followed by a gaggle of girls and boys, all tiny in various degrees. He starts introducing.

The youngest boy is his brother who is younger than his youngest daughter who is the youngest of the four girls he has. The all speak reasonable English and aren’t shy to shake hands and say ‘hello’. His youngest brother is kissed by everyone and seems to enjoy all the adulation. Then comes his father who is 48 while he is 32. His father has married twice while he has married only once, his father has 8 kids from both while Carry has 4 from one. Carry’s wife walks in and she is nice and pretty and again quite open in shaking my hand. I do a quick calculation and realize that this family needs some serious counseling in terms of chronology, though in matters of hospitality they are simply awesome.

It is already evening and the night moon is nearing full so I go out to shoot it through the sky and return after an hour to find dinner laid out in the most lavish display of food we had encountered so far in this country. For the first and last time we were offered tetra packed (Iranian) mango juice. I never saw this product anywhere else. The picture on the pack looked like mango but the taste was more like the sweet urine of a she donkey (not that I would know the difference, not having partaken a donkey’s nature’s call) but then the metaphor seemed appropriate so the usage; pardon me those with finer taste in things.

Early next morning Carry baffles us further with an offering of boiled eggs for breakfast along with all other regulars. Chris felt she had reached paradise (why, you would know in a different post), I felt I didn’t wish to reach anywhere while Pat remained unreachable as ever. Post breakfast we sped off into another mad rush and Carry kept the floor floored till we reached a sizeable mound of road beyond which roared a real river (not a rivulet) that cut off our path true and proper. It seemed impossible that our van could get across or anything else for that matter.

For the first time, Carry actually used the brakes and slowed down and then stalled at the edge of the river. He looked at me next to him, clutching my meager belongings and smiled his divine dentures. I was totally willing to turn around and return to his guesthouse. Carry reversed a bit, then got off and adjusted the tire pressures then walked to the edge of the river and gazed deeply into the black waters murmuring some prayers I suppose or was he in some secret communion with the water. Whatever may be the case, his returning strides seemed more confident and he springs into his seat. I start feeling optimistic, till he puts the van in the gear and utters looking at me, ‘Inshah Allah’. I raise my hands skywards to the west where Allah resides and echoed Carry with as much faith I could muster. I had by then realized that in a land so forlorn and hostile only Allah could be relied to do anything at all. For those few days I was surely a convert.

The van went straight into the frothing water, our wheels disappeared and I felt like sinking in a bog. There was a deathly quiet inside the van, even the tape fell silent like a miracle. Perhaps it was Allah’s method of granting us a merciful death. The van was being pushed aside by the water even as the engine struggled to move forward. The tires crunched dog sized boulders and rocks underneath.

Any moment we could either have a flat or engine breakdown and either would send us to death for sure. We were still upright and moving due to our forward motion. The van rather than crossing the river in a straight line went in a zigzag, Carry explaining that it is impossible to climb on the opposite bank so he has to find a shallower bank for exit. I think that’s what he said, since my mind was completely frozen with fear. I sincerely hoped that this Japanese Van had been retrofitted with Russian amphibian technology. Till this day I have no idea how much time we took to ford the river or how on earth did we get out, but it seemed like eternity and thank god for Carry’s chosen career.

Over and across the river, everything flew like silk and even the bumpy potholed track seemed like Alaska Highway. I played the sordid tape at max volume and sang till I cracked my larynx. I was sweating by then with so much extra adrenalin in my bloodstream. Soon we sighted our old guesthouse and Carry with a matador flourish brought his van to a halt with another display of madness. He took his money, offloaded all our bags and seemed ready to depart. I asked our guesthouse keeper to invite Carry and his assistant inside for some tea and refreshments since it was evening and he had been driving nonstop the whole day. But Carry refused since he had to get back home for dinner. It was the most absurd intent I had heard inside Afghan. He wanted to reverse the route we had just come in complete darkness just so he could have dinner with his family. So we shook hands, hugged and I even kissed his cheeks (Afghan style) for me he was and will always be no less than the merciful messiah who delivered me from hell back to civilization.

Others went in while I stood outside staring at Carry’s van now rapidly disappearing into the gathering gloom. In all likelihood I would never see him again but his smiling face and his van would always be a part of all my journeys. And for some reason I felt sad.

He would keep plying upon these dusty roads forever ferrying people with realized and unfulfilled dreams, feed them in his guesthouse befriending even few, he would never know of another world but his own. And I would always remember him as a happy man with a cheery family upon a field where greens grow, and a guesthouse by the river of Wakhan.

1 comment:

  1. OMG, S this is crazily beautiful... Love the renderings of your characters. No wonder u lost your heart to Afghanistan :)
    Next time please take a safer return back home. LOL. Hugs always.