Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Parody of European Errors

How to tail tourists with a twist in the tale

I take pride in my obscurity and penchant for going boldly into places most men or women have never gone before. I take this occupation of mine rather seriously and stick to it to the best of my inabilities. My friends constantly rebuff me as to the complete uselessness of my sordid life since I know nothing about the finest dine and wine or bars and night clubs of Paris or Milan. And when I tell them that I know of places that are not mentioned in atlases, somehow that doesn’t impress them much.

Cut in to the year 2011, months of October to November and I am headed for Europe for around 40 days. Where are you climbing, which new routes are you eyeing, would we see you in Zermatt, Grindelwald or Chamonix or the Dolomites or in the Bavarian Alps, my friends and fans throw at me to which I only smile mysteriously letting them steam in their curiosity. But to tell you the truth through this post, even I can’t believe where all I am headed for this time. I have a major agenda to this trip.

Afghan Affair – My Brother Sirajudullah


This would be my last and final post on people I befriended in Afghanistan. I know all the Afghan stories have not been told and they never will be since my Afghan Affair will continue as long as I breathe. Neither have I told of all the people I met; only a few, which is not to say that these were more important or indelible in my memory than all the others I befriended and walked with.


I have told of the little girl in the black but her pretty friend was no less impish or charming; I have narrated the story of our cab driver Carry but our other drivers were no less courageous or resourceful or hard working; I have told you of the shopkeeper Dawood but then all the others were equally welcoming and smiling.


I will not be telling about the brick layer Naseeruddin with the leather deerstalker cap who, on hearing there was one Urdu speaking Indian lost in his village, walked 22 km just so he could come and speak to me and find out if I needed any help and walked back the same night to be on time for the work to begin next morning and the path upon which he had walked was one that would even challenge my sturdy limbs. I will never be able to do justice to the woman who actually commanded me to take her picture with her kid and dragged me inside her home to feed me naan and tea, who smiled through her tear laden eyes; I prefer to keep her mysterious and veiled since I would never be able to gleam what turmoil lay within her heart.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Afghan Affair – Woman with Dreams


Ameena Bibi found me slipping and sliding down a steep scree covered hill, the trail that led directly towards her house with a mud wall. She stood outside suckling an infant to her breast. She must have noticed me long ago, as I was literally skiing down the hill from far above with massive dust storm of black and brown following at my heels. I have just had close encounters of the Afghan kind all over the village outside of Eishkashim, where young kids had taken me through green fields of peas and maize, where women had invited me inside their dark gloomy houses for tea, where men and kids have posed for me to take their pictures and where old and young, men and women alike have given me countless reasons to smile.

I must have seemed like a madman intent on killing himself to the woman (though that isn’t that far from the absolute truth). Braking with my battered knees isn’t easy and I had almost zipped off into the sizeable stream to which the trail led when I came to a halt with sufficient laws of motion redefined. The woman was looking at me with a smile on her cherubic face.

I have been laughed at and with all over the world; it’s nothing new, if I wasn’t me, then I too would be laughing at my nonsensical antics. A lone woman suckling her baby in an Islamic nation is not to be tampered with, my brain cautioned me, so I just smiled back at her guardedly and dusted my clothes and made to go. But even before I had taken a step or two, I froze on my track as the woman spoke to me lyrically in chaste English: Hello, I am Ameena Bibi. Would you like to come in!

You could have knocked me down with a dove’s feather. I approached her and told her my name and country of origin. Even at close quarter she did not seem abash being alone with a foreign man. She wore no veil and did not attempt to hide her baby under her bodice. It seemed perfectly natural for her to be chatting up with a complete stranger outside her house with a baby at her breast.
She preceded me through the gap in the mud wall that must serve as the door, and I followed.

The inside was taken up by an open courtyard where several clay bricks dried in their cast, a pile of dry woods took up another corner and at one end lay a room without roofs. My husband is a brick layer; Ameena said. Thereafter she led me through a dark door to enter a kitchen where I found three more women, one baking fresh naan on clay oven, and a small girl. Ameena spoke in Persian introducing me to the ladies and in turn introduced them to me in English.

None of the women showed any surprise, embarrassment or dismay to have a lone foreign man in a house full of women. They welcomed me, offered me naan and steaming chai, made me sit on the bare floor. I was even allowed to take a picture of the lady baking naan. As I spoke to Ameena and learned more about her, I kept wondering if I was relearning all my notions and knowledge about Islamic culture as far as women are concerned. In Ameena’s house I find women who are independent, outspoken, happy and cheerful, curious and generous to a degree rarely found. They don’t seem to be in any need of a man around the house and seem to have taken control of their own lives.

As I munch the delicious naan, Ameena tells me her story. She studied in CAI school and now teaches kids in her village. She dreams of traveling around the world, visiting India as well. Her husband is a poor brick layer, doing hard labor all day. He wanted many kids, but Ameena has only the one and is trying to persuade her husband to go for birth control procedures. She teaches the village women handicrafts and sustainable sources of employment while being at home. She leads villagers into making irrigation and agriculture projects. Being the most literate in her village, she heads the community development projects, writes proposals for the Governor and often has to travel to other villages raising awareness about sanitation, women’s and children health, pregnancy, etc.

My wonderment only grew with every passing minute as I listened to her. Here I was in one of the remotest, poorest and least developed spots on our entire planet, where radical Islam rules the day, where woman almost have no significance in the social echelon, and amidst all that Ameena stands out like a shining beacon of hope, a lighthouse amidst raging storm and anarchy.

She is full of confidence, optimism and cheerfulness. I couldn’t understand where she found them. I spoke to her at length telling her about Afghanistan at large, the way we look at her country and what we believe about Islamic culture and ways of life. Ameena counters me at every point, specifying that it all depends upon the individual and since individuals make up the society; it is up to the individuals to act collectively and change the society at large. That is and will always be her agenda in life. A lone woman, emerging from nowhere, and going against all norms of her people to stand and face everything that she has been told not to. Her life is in danger from the fanatics and Taliban and she has been severely beaten up on many occasions by religious leaders. She is a devout Muslim and firmly believes that her country can and will change one day.

No one outside of her world knows her, but I felt she should be featured internationally to let people know that there still are women like her. As we parted she asked for my phone number, which I wrote down in her diary. As she bid me goodbye, she said; one day I will come to visit you in India, how I don’t know, but I will.

I promised her that if she indeed came to India, I would be her host and guide and she can stay at our place as long as she wished. I didn’t believe her but was swayed by her supreme confidence and optimism. She has no money, no passport, she has never been outside her valley, she has never even seen an aircraft in real life, she has a kid and an illiterate husband along with relatives and other responsibilities. It seemed impossible that some day she could actually get out of her world and come into ours. And I wondered why did she open her heart and home to a stranger from nowhere!

With my head buzzing with new ideas and thoughts and her beautiful face, I returned to my guesthouse for the night. I had promised Ameena that on our way back I would certainly look her up but for shortage of time and our rush to cross back into Tajikistan before our Visa expired, I didn’t and couldn’t. I am not sure if she had been waiting for me to return or what would she think if she later came to learn that we had indeed returned from the mountains but never bothered to visit her house, which was barely 5 km from our guesthouse.

I regret today that I didn’t see her on our return trip and I wonder what Ameena Bibi is doing now, the woman with dreams. But I hope that one day my mobile will ring and on the other end will be Ameena Bibi with her dreams, cheerfulness and optimism. My friends say I inspire people with my life and words and way of living; but they don’t realize that I find my inspiration from people like Ameena Bibi and countless others I meet at the most obscure and remote places on Earth.

Thank you Ameena, you have rekindled within me my faith and belief that come what may, hope must never die.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Afghan Affair – Little Girl in Black



The day is gay; wind is kind; and the green fields are dancing in the halcyon breeze. The glacier fed streams are gurgling along as I dip my feet into the cold water and lay upon the grass to rest. I am not dead but I am in paradise, or very close to it. My horizon is decked with white crested peaks upon peak, woolly clouds etch their trail across the sparkling blue sky and birds sing their joyful melody while butterflies and honeybees buzz around sucking nectar from the million yellow and violet flowers that the valley is awash with.

Happy and simple people are passing by, pushing or pulling their donkeys or wheelbarrows, sickle or shovel on their backs, pretty women decked in startling variety of colourful dresses are scattered across the meadows minding their cows and goats. And little children are just about everywhere. They are swinging from the trees, they are jumping into puddles, they are chasing the dogs, they are climbing to the roofs, they are bothering their mothers for food and sweets and they are following me everywhere.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Afghan Affair – A dog and his Master



In a land where it is nearly impossible to make someone smile for the camera, Shukur is an oddity. It is nearly impossible to make him stop smiling, on or off the camera.

I first noticed Shukur when he came along with the Kheret guesthouse keeper to serve us evening tea. While the score of people gathered in the room ogled us with various expressions on their weather-beaten faces, this one boy (couldn’t be more than 25) laughed and smiled openly at all of us, especially at the two ladies in my company. He didn’t seem curious rather extremely jocular and merry at seeing us; though I later realized that he is merry about everything since I never ever saw anything but a radiant smile on this simpleton’s face.

What endeared him to all of us were his pantomime abilities. Through silent gestures and hand movements he could make us understand exactly what he conveyed and in turn could interpret our gestures. He said his name is Shukur. My first conversation with Shukur was filled with silent gestures and strident laughter. He has a bulbous nose, large round eyes (that rotate all the time) and an easy swing to his stride, all reminding me of Rastapopulous (the arch villain of Tintin). I sincerely wished that Shukur would be one among the eight porters we had asked for our climb to the Base Camp.

The morning of our departure (we were supposed to leave at 8 am) for the BC, I found Shukur outside our door at 6, smiling and laughing at the birds that scattered across the sky. I opened the door to find him dressed in his same pale salwar kameez (which must have been white in some remote past), knee high plastic boot and a rope on his back, which delighted my heart since it meant he was indeed one of our porters. I greeted him in local dialect, he greeted back and then I noticed a dog lying under a bush little distance away. My dog, Shukur gestured with another of his big smiles. Really, I gestured. I love dogs and this was an excellent specimen. All white, fluffy, sharp looking, intelligent (to a degree that astounded me later), and very obedient to Shukur. He introduced me to Zak, now I am not sure if a dog is called Zak in Wakhi tongue or was the dog’s name Zak but since then Zak he was.

I cuddled Zak and he licked my face and we became instant friends. He seemed old (perhaps a decade) as his jaw flanks were flared otherwise he was in excellent condition. I ran my fingers through the thick coat and Zak purred contented. Shukur, seeing my instant bonding to his dog, literally started jumping like a kangaroo. We all laughed and by then Pat and Chris had also come out to investigate all the ruckus we had created. At the determined moment our train of porters and climbers started the uphill trek towards the mighty mountain with white top.

Shukur and Zak stayed close to me; Zak several times getting entangled between my legs since he loved my petting and ear rubbing I gave him every now and then. For me he provided an excellent model and so did his master who would always smile. As we climbed higher and our halts became more frequent and vegetation almost non-existent, I realized that Zak and I shared some common instincts. My philosophy of ‘never stand if you can sit and never sit if you can lie down and never do anything if you have nothing to do’ seemed Zak’s mantra too. He would be the first one among us to find the coziest shade spot or a patch of green to spread his four limbs akimbo and then sprawl and fall asleep (at least he shut his eyes the instant he lied down) within a second of our stopping for rest. At times he would find a nice rock to perch his head while the rest of his body draped upon another larger rock to provide him some warmth. So I start following Zak, knowing for certain that he would lead me to the finest spot each time to throw my backpack down and rest. We often sprawled like that, both competing who would doze off first – much to the amusement of others.

At every stop, Shukur would be the first to open his magic bag and extract naans, kulcha, khomoch and sugar for all of us. At the river Zak found us the safest passage across. He crossed first, literally hop skip and jump and then stood on the other side atop a big boulder watching us cross safely.

All the porters were merry people and extremely hardy but as the trail gained inclination and altitude everyone fell silent and gasped for breath under the heavy burden. No one seemed sad but no one really smiled except Shukur and Zak. It was easy to understand Zak since he carried no load and must be the fittest among us and had four legs on ground so had better balance and poise. But Shukur was something else. I kept close to him, looking at him intently, but the smile was always there, even when he didn’t know I was looking; and each time our eyes met, the smile would only inflate into a huge teeth baring grin.

Just before we went up the final moraine towards the glacier (an extremely steep unstable ground of rolling stones) we stopped for a tea break. It was an open area without any shade but I spied Zak disappearing behind a boulder so I followed him to find a thin passage (barely wide enough to allow me to sit) formed between boulders that offered the only shade and Zak had gone straight into it. It was a bit of a struggle to get up to where Zak now sat with his tongue lolling. I got into the groove and sat next to him. Patted his head like an old buddy and offered him dried apricot.

On reaching the base camp area, Zak found us the debris of the last expedition amidst a wide field of boulders, ice and glacial streams. The porters dropped our loads and built a fire to make some tea. They would go down in less than half an hour. When it was time to bid goodbye I found it hard to part from Zak and Shukur. His smiling face was a bonus in the arid land and a welcoming sight first thing in the morning when he would get my tea. Zak was and still remains the cutest and boldest and cleverest dog in all of Afghan that I had seen.

I met them again on our return from the mountain. I found Shukur riding his donkey towards the river to fetch stones and sands for his roofless house; Zak followed him at his feet. They saw me from far and galloped to catch up. We hugged like old friends, our words all confused, but gestures worked fine.

Shukur offered me a handful of fresh apricots. Zak literally jumped on my chest and then rolled on the ground begging to be scratched on his belly. He wagged his tail like a windmill and barked joyously. After a while I realized that Shukur must go and so should I, even though I would love to linger with this smiling boy and his dog Zak. Human modes of communication through words and voice was created so that all human emotions and feelings can be conveyed without ambiguity, since gestures and pantomime can convey only this much and no more.

As Shukur rode away with Zak trailing, and they both looked back at me and once again all three of us broke into smiles, I realized that there’s a whole lot I would have loved to know about the pair, the secret of Shukur’s perennial happiness, where did he live, what did he think, what were his dreams and when did he last wash his clothes. But I would never learn those things, perhaps never again see him or Zak, perhaps my feet would never again traverse upon these enchanted valleys and for me this journey would forever remain incomplete and therefore more endearing than the ones I complete.

This journey now remains a promise of further adventure and a motivation to return again one day.

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.

Afghan Affair – Dawood Pathan



First day inside Afghanistan (Eishkashim) and Pat draws out a long list of stuff that we need to purchase from the local bazaar before setting off to the mountains. We walked down to the bazaar and soon face the common problem of any international traveler who is not a linguist, that of lingua franca.

Every shopkeeper in that bizarre bazaar smiles at us and offers his display for our benefit but we can’t make anyone understand what we really want since most of our ‘wanted’ list items are not on display. I apply my pantomime and say ‘Hindustani’ (I am from Hindustan or India) that brings out more smiles but no comprehension and then I scream ‘Urdu’ like a demented gorilla, to which brings in severe nods of denial. I feel like a deflated balloon without gas since I had boasted Pat I would be able to swing through the shopping like a hot knife through hot butter.

We walk up and down, looking and smiling and clicking pictures of people and donkeys for the want of anything better. Pat sips a coke; I ponder the vast emptiness within my head. We are climbers so perseverance is not only our forte but birthright, so we keep up our completely unsuccessful efforts at communication. Pat knows three and half languages; I know half and three or three fourth so that makes it a little more than four. Even then we remain wherever we are and we both aren’t sure, after hours of aimless loiter, where exactly that is.

Suddenly a giant in brown salwar kameez bars my way, popping out of a dark window like the genie of Aladdin. And speaks in chaste Urdu: tum Hindustan se ayaa? (You come from India?). I stare at him as if I have finally sighted the lighthouse that would guide me out of the stormy night. Yes, I respond.
He engulfs me in a hug that is larger than that of a Polar Bear. His laughter echoes from all corners of the bazaar and everyone looks at us to see what the uproar is all about. My name is Dawood Pathan, he says, you are my friend from India. Someone told me that you are here and looking to buy things. I will help you.

From then on, we are under the stewardship of Dawood. He shows me his one room abode with a blue door (freshly painted as he pointed) atop one corner of the bazaar and then we head for his shop first. He assures that whatever we don’t find in his shop, he would take us to others and get us the best bargain.

As we follow Dawood with confident strides as if we own the place, everyone waves and chucks words at our guide. Dawood seems to be a popular man. He tells me his story. He has been a traveling salesman for many years peddling his goods atop his beloved donkeys from Iran, across Central Asia, to Pakistan (that’s where he learned Urdu) onwards to China and back again. His knowledge of the silk route was impeccable. For the last two years he had set up his shop in this godforsaken corner of Afghanistan. We were short of time else I would have spent days with him hearing his travel tales, yet he did fill me up quite a bit.

We reach his shop to discover it has a vegetable kiosk open-display on the front while the main shop contained many of the stuff we looked for, like jam, butter, cheese, biscuits, macaroni, tinned fruit, etc. predictably most of the products came from Iran or Pakistan. He even had a freezer outside (running on generators) that contained an assortment of fizzy beverages. He offered me one on the house. The vegetable section contained potatoes (rather distorted), onions (all falling apart), green chilly (sizes to match that of Dawood), radish (rotten and falling off), tomatoes (they were still remotely red) and half a dozen ripe watermelons. As he got the stuff out, our list kept getting smaller. Once done, Dawood took us to other shops. He got us at least 20 % discounts everywhere and at no place did we have to pay individually. We were supposed to pay Dawood for everything together lump sum. This was highly convenient. We finally went to the gas shop.

Here the gas purchasing rules are decidedly funny. First you have to buy the empty gas cylinders (we wanted 5 ltr, two) and then you pay extra for the filling. Now the catch is that the cylinders you buy actually become yours, you don’t have to return them and no one tells you what you would do with them once our expedition gets over. Thankfully the burner comes free along with the cylinder.

I told Dawood to do something about it. After few minutes of haggling with the stern looking gas seller, Dawood declared that when we return the two cylinders (and if they are still in good order) we would get refund for one of them. So that meant an extra 1000 Afghani for us. We liked the deal and the gas seller told us to come an hour later to pick up the two filled gas cylinders plus one burner.

Our shopping list was a little obfuscated since things kept being added or dropped at the whims of the three of us and I had to go to the bazaar several times to complete the purchase, even returning things that on the hindsight we felt we wouldn’t need. Every time all I did was reach Dawood’s shop, drink a coke and then go with him to get things done. Not once did he complain or say that it might be difficult for him to leave his shop to help me out. After all, majority of the stuff we didn’t buy from him. But Dawood was always there with his bear hug, kiss on the cheek and rumbling laughter for his friend from India.

On our last day when we parted, he shook my hand for long and gave me his address and asked me to drop him a postcard from home. I am very sure there’s no postal system in that part of Afghan and whatever mail or parcels come in there, comes through diplomatic or humanitarian missions. Yet, I would surely send him a postcard, no matter where it goes. Since he taught me that it’s not the real physical thing that matters, but it’s the spirit, the brotherhood, the bonhomie that transcends the barriers of race, nation, culture and language.

I am sure we would have managed equally well without Dawood and we wouldn’t have starved up on the mountain, but this gentle giant only brought in the ray of hope that is so difficult to find in a place so ravaged by greed and anarchy.

My Afghan friend Dawood Pathan sits in a remote corner of a lonely valley in the forlorn land of Afghanistan. I would request all of you, who is reading this and feel the way I do about these people, please do send him a postcard too at his address below and tell him that his friend from India is proud to have known him. Thank you all.

Dawood Nasiri (Pathan)
Shop 152, Badakhshan
Iskashim Chowk
Afghanistan

Monday, September 12, 2011

Afghan Affair – Afghan Alpinist

We first came across Hafiyat Khan in person at the village of Quazideh, the first proper outpost after leaving Eishkashim, en route to our mountain. He was haunched by the roadside along with our interpreter chewing a sturdy stick of sugarcane. He wore a black leather jacket with loose trousers and a turban around his handsome head. He was fair, smooth skinned and quite unlike a seasoned climber, which he was if we were to believe some of the reports that Pat carried with her about earlier expeditions to the area.

Hafiyat Khan is among the only four Afghans ever trained in Chamonix and he is among the first Afghans to climb Noshaq, the highest mountain in the country. He is mentioned in several earlier expedition reports and has always been highly spoken of. It is odd to find him so far away from any mountain and engaged in a pursuit so trivial.

We exchange greetings, Pat shows him the cuttings she has where his name is mentioned. He speaks fair amount of English and some French and is proud of his credentials. He tells us about our mountain since he has been there on an Italian expedition several years ago. We ask him to join us but he reveals that he is currently involved in the setting up of a hospital (funded by an Indian company) in the village of Kipkut that now is his full time job. He is certainly a celebrated man in Afghan, humble, charming and effusive. So we leave him and go ahead.

I meet Hafiyat Khan again on return from our expedition. I find him in Kipkut with his head covered in a turban, t shirt tucked in his trousers and with hammer, saw and nails in his hand. He is working hard at cutting a tall log into two and sweating profusely. He is also screaming at a group of laborers struggling to upright another heavy log to make a roof support. I realize that Hafiyat Khan in reality is a carpenter and supervisor for making this hospital and not in the administration as I had presumed him to be. He recognizes me immediately and comes forward, hugging me like a long lost friend. He asks about our expedition and is delightfully surprised that we made it to the top since they had failed despite having some of the best climbers in the world in that team. He offers me tea and then returns to guide and scream at the workers.

The last I remember seeing of him was his waving hand, still clutching a dozen nails and a massive hammer, from the roof of the half built hospital. He looked happy and content with his life and his occupation. If he had come with us then he would have earned nearly five times what he would earn in the hospital, yet for him that was more important since it would benefit his people and the villages. I am not sure why would he give up on an opportunity to make more money in a land where poverty is so abject and fashionable that it is hard to imagine someone not poor.

I tried to envision one of our top climbers upon the roof of a hospital and cutting woods or hammering nails for pittance and somehow the image didn’t come together. And as far as I am concerned, in all likelihood, the world of Afghan mountains had lost Hafiyat Khan forever.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Afghan Affair – The Fantastic Four


Our battered Toyota Landcruiser’s rear wheel went into a ditch and the front left one got stuck atop a massive boulder—how our driver managed this seemingly impossible manoeuvre is still a mystery to me—but right at that moment we all knew that this perhaps is the first major mishap to befall our expedition; and in every possibility there seemed no way out of the fix.

Our vehicle contained our entire expedition load and five robust people: three climbers, one interpreter and one driver and it was bursting from its rivets (according to Pat, popping the rivets) and welded joints. We had been hurtling and hammering ourselves relentless over the last 9 hours or so over some of the worst dirt roads of my entire life (and that says a lot); we had forded swollen rivers, sand dunes, had changed one burst tyre, and had just crossed to the south bank of Wakhan River over the bridge past Shergez and were hoping our masochistic journey would soon come to an end.

Precisely when I had begun to breathe easy (wondering at Toyota’s wonder car that it could still function after so much battering as it was already severely battered when it was purchased), our vehicle got stuck in one of the remotest and hostile and unlikely spots on the entire planet in a position that is impossible to imagine if I hadn’t seen it myself. This is what really happened.


After crossing the bridge after Shergez, we went down through green fields towards a vast delta where few mountain streams had carved a huge reverse ‘V’ shaped area, galloping and guzzling through rocks and stones before joining up with Wakhan River further down. We were a km short of the village of Baba Tengi and we could see its few houses perched like doll huts atop the mountain at a distance. We were barely 5 km away from our destination village of Kheret.

The mountain streams had brought in massive boulders and plenty of alluvial debris across the field and it was nearly impossible to recognize a path through them and being late afternoon the waters had risen high and flowing like a dam burst. Our driver was not so familiar with this patch of ground. I learned later that due to these streams at this point, the jeep track is altered almost every day, meandering and changing according to the flow and strength of the water. So our driver drove on through the confusing dumps of boulders, mud slides and channels of water over a trail that we all thought was indeed the correct path. But shortly we came to a dead end where the entire landmass had been washed away by the colossal amount of water.

The place was far too narrow for us to turn around, and we all alighted. While I and the interpreter went to look for an alternate path, the ladies guided the driver to reverse on the tricky tiny trail. At one particular narrow corner, the driver reversed off the trail and managed to climb up on a boulder nearly half my size in length. He tried to use brute strength to dislodge the boulder and in doing so, crushed it and got embedded further. The air was soon redolent with stench of unburnt fuel and burnt rubber. Finally the driver switched off the engine and got down. When we returned, after having found another tortuous path; highly roundabout through the streams to the other side, we found the two ladies and the driver with their faces pressed into the ground trying to decipher how to get the boulder out and the vehicle free.

Mountaineers by nature, learn to be patient and carefree, so the three of us simply whistled, I took pictures, while the two locals grumbled and fretted. Then we got out all our stuff to make it lighter and then out came the driver’s tool box, which had enough gadgets to dismantle a space shuttle or assemble a nuclear warhead, depending on your preferred occupation.

Over the next hour we tried every trick in books and out of syllabus, pushing and pulling, hammering and hitting, kicking with kickass attitudes, swearing and praying and even after Allah willing when nothing happened, I started looking for a camping sight for the night. The situation seemed hopeless for the time being and I was hopeful of finding at least one dry spot amidst the streams for our tent.

Suddenly out of literal nowhere; since we had never seen them approaching us and we did have a clear field of vision for several km all around, appeared four individuals: one elderly with a colourful cap, one young adult bareheaded and two boys of mid-teens. One moment we were only five fatigued individuals and then suddenly we were nine. They could have been air dropped by a UFO or conjured out of thin air. They were utterly poor, scrawny and thin but happy and smiling like only Afghans can be under such dire straits. They took a look at us (we all were collapsed on the ground by then) and then at the Toyota. Then they spoke rapidly to our driver and within a blink of the eye, these four newcomers had taken charge of the vehicle from us, as if it was their destined duty to get us out of our misery. A jimmy, shovel, chisel and a hammer and a piece of rope appeared mysteriously and they got down to work. Soon our driver and the interpreter joined them, and so did I, now enthused to get few extra pair of hands.

The youngest lad had two plastic bottles, which he kept filling and pouring into the engine coolant as smoke belched intermittently. Within half an hour our vehicle returned to terra firma. Then the four walked ahead of our vehicle and asked us to follow them. They led us across the deep stream taking us through the shallowest and the gentlest parts (even at these places they had to struggle in order to survive and prevent getting washed away; they were risking their lives for us to get over) and led us in a large loop and several cocks-crew manoeuvres and finally our vehicle (with all its animate and non-animate occupants still breathing) climbed up on to the other side, wet but none the worse for wear. And our four rescuers grinned from ear to ear. We shook hands and smiled with and at them. They stared at us and smiled back.

We wanted to offer them some money but they refused. They were shivering in the cold breeze, they were soaking from waist below and the sun was nearly out. Our interpreter said that these four were working in their fields up on the yonder mountains and had seen us going the wrong way and knew that we might get into trouble, so they had come down in anticipation to help us if needed—completely unbidden or without any ulterior motives, having walked through the torturous terrain for over an hour or so.

We could speak or say nothing to them to make them understand our heartfelt gratitude; and perhaps they didn’t want any of it either. They were selfless simple folks, happy and content within their own world and they would help anyone passing through their land. We took few shots, showed them the pictures (which lit up their faces again) and took leave.

As we receded, I looked back out of the window and found the four with their backs towards us, slowly reducing and disappearing into the growing dusk and walking away and I wondered what they might be talking right now, of us, or of their field and donkeys, would they remember us after tonight and what did the whole thing mean to them after all. I shall never know, I shall never meet any of them again and I shall never be able to do anything for them ever even though they literally rescued us from a very serious situation.

What do we say, what can we give, what can we do for such individuals that could reciprocate their kindness and generosity in some measure; actually nothing. Such people, as I meet all over the world in the most unlikely of places, who help me, feed me and save me without seeking anything in return, only teach me humility and a reaffirmation to the goodness of humanity.But above all they teach me that there's no price for kindness and humanity.

They teach me to be grateful for what I have and to share all that I can, they teach me never to lose faith in god and perhaps through their smiles they tell me that the only way I can do anything for them is to help someone in trouble in return and let this chain of selfless attitude towards each other continue till it encompasses the globe without the manmade boundaries of nation, race and prejudices. To me these four would always be the Marvel Comic books superheroes Fantastic Four.

Perhaps some of you would argue that they don’t look like superheroes, neither do they wear any special suit and body armour. But what we must never forget is that there’s a hero in each one of us and within these four as well and to me they would always be an inspiration. Toshe Khor (Thank you in Dari).

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Afghan Affair – An Old Man by the River




As I trapeze the rickety wooden bridge, swinging into the wild winds across Wakhan River, I find an old man smiling to himself by the river, looking deep and lost into the turbulent waters. I need a shelter for the day and through the grassy fields I could see the top of one at a distance and no one else around save the old man. I have my backpack on my back and I must look haggard and deserted and severely in need of a bath (though that is not a point that gets you sympathy in a land where no one bathes). I stride up to the man, who continues to stare into the waters, timeless like the mountains around. He couldn’t possibly have missed seeing me. I walk closer and he looks up. With my back to the sun he has to squint and so he did but his smile remains intact and then his eyes return to the river. I too look at the river but couldn’t find anything out of the place or interesting for this man to give it such undivided attention.

By now I thought I knew enough Dari / Wakhi to get by. I observe the man. He wore a typical colourfully embroidered Wakhi cap with leaf and flower pattern, a green pullover into which he might have grown up since it was caked with century old dust, a torn collared shirt that peeked from above and elastic waistband trousers that could have been a family inheritance of several generations. Despite his abject poverty and frugal possessions the man drew my attention due to the sublime smile on his countenance.


I stutter: Chator asti? (How are you); he replied: Khob (good). So far so good, I sigh in relief.
I proceed further: Naame ma Satya ast (my name is Satya); he looks at me: Khob, he replies.
Well not exactly the answer I hoped but good enough.
So I ask: takht (bed; in a bid to seek refuge since I don’t know how one says ‘I need a place to stay’ in Dari) and the old man replies once again: Khob.

And only then it dawns that he only says Khob to anything I ask. So I pantomime a bed and he pats the ground next to him. I look up and around but don’t see anyone else.

So we sit for a while in the literal middle of nowhere by the river Wakhan, staring at nothing in particular. Then the old man stands up to his shrunken height and I place him nearer to seventy than sixty. He starts walking and I follow him. I am amazed once again at his radiating smile depicting inner peace and contentment that is found within Zen monks. I try to make conversation but he only laughs and repeats khob several times. I then get a brilliant brainwave; I step in front of him and lie down on ground, making my backpack into a pillow. He looks at me smilingly for a while and then suddenly breaks into a guffaw that opens his mouth to show his irregular and shaded dentures. He leads me beyond a field of green peas and opens the lock of a mud house. That perhaps is my only success in pantomime with him besides one other.

He leads me into a sizeable room with a raised platform, wide enough to put double beds side by side, which runs around the room all along the wall. Several mattresses are piled up at one corner. Two blue windows, which are open, throw some light within. He indicates the mattresses and pulls out two for me to sit. Both the windows offer uninterrupted sight of the mountain we had just been to and I could see the Wakhan River far down below. After a brief disappearance the old man returns with a pot of cold water that soon refreshes my tired limbs and heightens my hunger. I rub my hand on my belly and pantomime the act of eating. This is the only other success I ever have with him. He smiles again and leaves. I recline on the mattress, take out my camera and thumb through the pictures as I retrace my Afghan voyage of the past four weeks.

The old man enters with an aluminium tray large enough to hold an African elephant, and upon it rested several bowls of yoghurt, tea pot, cups and a bowl of dry apricot. He gets up on the platform and from the top of a pillar draws out a colourful piece of cloth (which forms the table cloth, if there was a table), which he unfurls in front of me and literally throws a dry naan on it. People could have been sleeping upon a naan in Afghan or some donkey might even have kicked its hind legs into it and by now my stomach could digest even iron, so I broke it into smaller pieces, since one whole cannot be eaten and digested by a regular mortal, and offer them to the old man. We both eat in silence. He dips his naan in tea, and I into the yoghurt that is delicious, rancid and fresh. And then I fall asleep.

Something stirs me and I sit up with a start to find the old man still at his place, staring at me with his smile. I find it odd; I had presumed he would be gone once I fell asleep. As he sees me move, he brings forward a pot of tea and a glass of water. I feel awkward; I don’t want him to be servile and in constant attendance. I don’t know how to tell him to go, his kind smile is beyond reproach and perhaps the poor man had given up his own home to me. So we sit in silence for a while, he smiling and looking at me, I staring back, smiling like a fool and feeling like one. Though back home I don’t really socialize but on the roads I like to befriend people for I wish to learn stories, their lives and new things. The obvious lack of communication and comprehension between us prevents me to unravel the old man who is now my benefactor. I again try every word of Dari then Urdu then English but make no way except that the old man just guffaws from time to time and punctuates with khob. So I started my sign language skills. I asked for butter, he got me towel, I asked how much I owed him, he showed me a torn page from a school book, I asked about his family, he brought me his donkey, I asked for the toilet, he led me to the kitchen. Either I was really dumb at dumb charade or he was from another planet.

I finally gave up and relapsed into another well deserved silence. But then I climb only due to perseverance, so I had another brain wave. And I said, Kabul, and he said Khob, then said Eishkashim; wow that was a major breakthrough I felt. So next I said Faizabod (another major town around the province) and he said Khandud (the district HQ of Wakhan), then I said Pamir, and he said Pamir, then I said Khob, and he said Khob and suddenly he said Khan Tsering; which stumped me alright. I didn’t know of any place in the vicinity or in the country by that name. I opened my map, read the LP guide, but no luck. It was like an Afghan geographical quiz show.

So I start again, another Afghanistan geographical location name game, and again after few words the old man said, Khan Tsering. This happened few times to be a mistake on my part in interpreting his diction or dialect. This was getting intriguing and bizarre. By then the evening had set in. The old man left on his own bidding and I followed him from a distance but he disappeared suddenly behind the mud house, as if the ground had gobbled him up. And he returned after twenty minutes with a hot pot of tea and naan. Assuming this to be dinner, I ate it sharing with him. And then went out to watch the sun dip behind the distant snow covered peaks of Hindu Kush. The old man was always a step behind.

My face awash with the orange glow I looked at the mountain where we were only few days ago struggling to stay warm and felt the pang of separation of a dear one and the old man literally peered into my face with his beatific smile. His tiny eyes twinkled in some hidden mirth that I couldn’t fathom. He remained my silent and smiling companion as we witnessed the grand arena, something that he must be seeing each day of his life. I felt sad as the sun dipped finally while the old man couldn’t have looked merrier. We returned to the cottage. Night fell suddenly and steeply in these parts and once again the old man disappeared from sight like a ghost. He returned holding the massive tray in one hand and an oil lamp in the other. The tray held a plate of Persian Pilaf though made only of rice, oil and onion and another pot of tea and another naan. He placed it in front of me upon the unrolled piece of cloth.

We ate in silence, from the same plate and I felt as if the old man had a lot to say but didn’t know how to as he kept looking at me through his bright and smiling eyes. He would proffer me the tea or water even before I could ask and I felt embarrassed and uneasy at his servile self. I remembered a dialogue from the Italian film, Life is Beautiful, where the uncle of the hero who is the head steward in a restaurant teaching the protagonist the art of serving: we are here to serve but we are not servants.

After dinner I take my customary walk beneath the starry sky and look up at my friends, my companions on lonely nights upon the great oceans of this world and the mightiest of the mountains. Whenever lonely or forlorn, sad or merry, I would always look up at the stars twinkling above and speak to them what my heart contained. So I walk in the darkness into the silence and the old man follows my steps silently. There’s nothing that I can say to him nor do I wish to, except to thank him profusely for his kindness and generosity. He has been looking after me literally every minute from the time we had been together. I knew in few hours from now, with the first rays of the new dawn I would leave this place and the old man never to return again and I would never even know his name, leave aside anything else.

I return inside as the outside is really cold now and I pull out one of the blankets from under the mattress and settle down for the night. I expect the old man too would follow suit, but he just sits at a corner and looks at me through the feeble glow of the oil lamp. Only his face is illuminated and his bright smiling eyes are shining like Santa as he leans forward and cups his chin upon his right palm. I have no idea how to tell him to go to sleep or what else to tell him, so I shut my eyes and soon drift off into my dreams.

I wake up next morning with the sunrays falling on my face. The old man is still at the same place in the same posture, except he has a fresh pot of tea and another naan in his hand. He smiles as our eyes meet. He laughs, says khob and again Khan Tsering, then guffaws and sets the food in front of me. I eat, drink the tea and pack up my bag. I will be setting afoot again for the next village to meet up our vehicle for the return trip. The old man keeps looking at me and then fills up my bottle with cold refreshing water. I pick up my pack and take out the wallet. I have no idea how much I am supposed to pay him. Even though it is an insult to his generosity to offer money but these people are so poor that I am sure he would welcome any amount I may offer. So I ask him ‘chand ast’ (how much) to which I get his signature smile, guffaw, khob and Khan Tsering in that precise order. I pull out a wad of Afghani currency and dollar bills and show them but his answer is still the same. He doesn’t extend his hand towards the money. I must hit the road before it gets late, so I put a 20 $ bill in his hand, which he takes with the same reaction in the identical order, and then I leave.

As I walk down the slope of the pea’s field, towards the river, I turn around to find the old man affixed to his place as before, looking at me with the same smile on his face. I raise my hand in the universal sign of farewell and he waves back, his face breaking out into another divine smile like a freshly opened sunflower. I am sure he must have uttered khob and Khan Tsering as well.

He remains a mystery and I barely know anything about him and never will but then as each step takes me away from him and his cottage and his fields and his donkey, I again feel that I am receding from a friend, from a pure soul, that was placed there at that moment to save mine. There perhaps was no divinity within that old man more than in anyone else and in a land full of such kind people he was a commoner but to me he would always shine as the old man by the river who told me of a place that no book or maps on Afghan mentions. I smile to myself and to the river, to which now I am united for life and beyond since many a day had I passed looking into its turbulent depths. I take up a tune that I had forgotten and swinging my arms to keep my body warm I step towards the western horizon that was now waking up into another day cheery happiness.

P.S. In the next village when I inquired about the old man, someone told me that once upon a time, long time ago that man was a legendary ibex hunter and had now gone soft in the head and his name is Khan Tsering. And only then did I drop my pack on the ground and rolled upon the earth in laughter clutching my stomach to keep myself from bursting.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Afghan Affair – Déjà Vu



How often does it happen that you reach a place for the first time in your life and instantly feel you have arrived that you have been here before, and this is where you belong. As my feet lands upon Afghan soil, this is exactly how I feel. A country that I have dreamt of ever since I have known the great Himalaya and the trans-Himalayan Ranges.

My childhood was replete with Afghan encounters as dry fruit sellers from Kabul (we called them Kabuilwallahs) would potter around selling their merchandise and would enthrall the buyers (especially me) with tales of a magic land full of snow white mountains, green lush pastures, beautiful men, women and children, legends of fairies and jinni, orchards full of apricots and peaches, gurgling mountain spring a sip from which could make one immortal, the fierce horse riders, the nomadic tribes and the valor of the Afghan people who have never been conquered or subjugated by a foreign force. Names like Kabul, Khyber Pass, Bamiyan, Mazar-e-Sharif, Heart were part of my fantasy world. The northeast being the land of the mighty Hindu Kush (killer of Hindu – legend says that a Hindu King had got killed while crossing one of the high passes, so the name of the range) and Pamir Ranges spurned my over imaginative mind further.

Soviet invasion, the resistance movement, the creation of Mujahedeen and Taliban, hijacking of an Indian airplane and ultimately the US retaliation; most bizarre and severe instances of human rights violation both from outside and within and Nat Geo spurring our minds even further with stark and grim pictures of the war victims, of crippled and blinded children, and many such issues that filled up the media and thousands of novels (many of which I read hungrily) did not deter my dream that the land must somehow still preserve its pristine puerile presence where people lived happily and content and mountain springs could indeed make one immortal and I just knew that one day it would be my destiny to amble upon those orchards and green fields of Afghan and befriend the simple hearted people. My dream finally came true on that day when I stepped into Afghanistan along with two dear friends.


To my friends it was a climbing adventure; for me it was and it will always be an adventure of a lifetime, a journey to my roots, a reunion with myself that in some past life I had lost within these spectacular landscape.

From this post onwards I would be serving you dish after dish a series of snippets, travelogues, memories and simple tales—often unbelievable, often too bizarre to be fantasy, and often funny enough to make you smile but above all a reminiscence to those of us, who have begun to doubt humanity that there indeed are the most unlikely places upon our planet where kindness is found amidst cruelty, where sustenance is found amidst depravity, where innocence flourishes amidst indifference, where laughter and happiness reverberate across the valleys amidst sadness and where life blooms beneath the shadow of death. People often call Afghan a hopeless land, especially by many of those who are there to precisely alleviate that (like the international aid workers) but to me it turned out to be the only place where hope is not only burning within the darkest of hearts but amongst those who have nothing left to burn. More than the landscape and the green fields of corn and maize, what touched me deepest were the people and their attitude and their outlook towards a visitor.

Each of my posts on Afghan would have the same base title ‘Afghan Affair’ (for me it was no less than a heady affair with someone I am smitten with) followed by the name of the particular post. Through these you would share not only my journey, not so much of the climb perhaps, but also find yourself within the homes and hearts of the lovely Afghan people and would befriend them as effortless as I did. All I ask of you in return is to redesign your thoughts about this land and about mankind in general, to fill your hearts with compassion and not with biases, and to be generous to those not so fortunate and to be forgiving to those who might have erred; for that’s what Afghan would teach you eventually—to see others and yourself with compassion and it would take you on a journey within, a place where you should venture but seldom do since we are scared of the darkness not realizing that that’s where the lights sparkle. Let our journey begin.

I am not an expert on anything, least of all on Afghanistan. All I knew and know about Afghanistan can be written in capital bold on the head of a nail leaving room for the entire Koran, insha Allah. During my one month long crusade through this land I only saw a miniscule part of the vast country, interacted with few people and by no means my experience can be termed as the kaleidoscope of the country or of its people. At the best my impressions can be termed as a seagull skimming the ocean waves and picking up one or two morsels here and there, which doesn’t make it an oceanographer or a traveler through the seven seas. But what the seagull certainly knows is how to catch a fish and it can do so upon any part of the oceans or sea and it also knows that seawater is essentially saline. In short, the seagull can definitely tell us the essence of the ocean.

So perhaps my observations and stories would give you the essence of Afghanistan and all things Afghani. To conclude this post, I am sharing with you all, verbatim, some of my random scribbling within the first few days of being on Afghan soil in the same chronological order they were written. Reading them now, reads like a turbulent BBC rogue reporter reporting from Kabul, but like I said before, these came from within, at the spur of the moment. I am so glad now, as I type them out for you, that these scribbling did not get washed away by the rivers that we crossed or buried by the avalanches that buried the author alright. So here goes…

1) A nation placed so strategically, precariously and sparsely would naturally have a tumultuous past, an uncertain present and an unknown future. It is in constant turmoil in order to survive, in order to exist and in order to prove to the world that they can be independent and self reliant without all the dirty fingers mocking up their land, people and culture like an ignoramus baker’s dough.

2) They live not in hope but in despair, since that is optimism in Afghan. A country so outraged ridiculed and restricted that now all they have is a fierce attachment to their identity and ethnicity. Most people have no wish to leave their home or to know of the outside world. They smile even as they die; they dance and sing even as landmines and bombs render them limbless. Gutted houses, roofless rooms, barely any food (except naan and chai) on table, low life expectancy, and Afghans still survive with their warmth, smile, hospitality and discarded dogmatism that borders on insanity. Its beauty is unshaped and untouched by human intellect, green valleys dotted with mud houses, yellow mustard fields swaying to the breeze and the people wandering around with nothing inside their head or within their calloused hands. They have suffered so long that suffering is a way of life and any comfort is abjectly rejected.

3) Have I understood Afghanistan or its people; I asked myself as my passport is getting stamped with the exit visa. No more than I have understood myself… my heart speaks to me. With that I take a long deep look at the land where I now belonged and turn my back but not my soul to its people.

Khuda Hafiz Afghanistan and inshah Allah I shall be back soon.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Upon a Road Less Troubled


If memory serves right—and my memory always serves left when I want it right especially taking a nosedive whenever I return from the rarified environs of our planet—I had put in my last post from Dushanbe towards the centre of July. And then I had plunged into an adventure that took me to a place that I have dreamt of since childhood. Surfacing only the past week back in the Delhi heat that is making me disparately desperate to seek an escape, hence my creative juices have been running dry ever since, and when they had been overflowing I was too far away from a computer, electricity, net connection and civilization in that order.

So here I am your chronicler and story teller and your companion on roads less traveled and much troubled, which often leads us into travel travail tales of titanic tapestry. Taking up the thread where I had lost it last. Join me now from where we had parted, if you had indeed joined me before; but if you haven’t even then this is a good place to begin our journey together. After all with a lost soul like me, how much more can you get lost than you already are. So any place on earth is a fine place to begin and conclude our journey and on that fine morning when I started off towards the Pamir, with three gorgeous women and a reticent omniscient driver for company all packed within the confines of a shining Toyota Landcruiser I had presumed that for once my road would be less troubled – little did I know then as you would discover!


For those who may wonder where am I right now for my creative juices to flow again, then I am still within the heated precincts of Delhi; aha; but then how come I am found here tapping on the keyboard, then my friends, it is a long story that I can only tell you briefly; for I wasn’t given any choice in this matter at all by one who is my choice. I know this sound like a riddle for it really is; but that’s another story and has little relevance to our four intrepid travelers and one dare devil driver who are now cruising along the pampered and poked Pamir Highway blasting the morning breeze and the road with songs of laughter and joy. So let’s begin…

There were some minor glitches but then they are always there. Our driver named Gadon (don’t ask what that means) speaks no English and barely understand any, Laura speaks several European tongue and a smattering of Persian but no Tajik or Russian. Patricia had spoken Russian three decades ago and whatever Russian was forced down my throat 23 years before had all been digested by my system by now while Christine just sat silently like the dainty lady she is eyeing our completely disastrous attempts at striking up any sort of communication with our driver except the sign language.

While we enjoyed the rushing scenery of green and brown I wondered about the notorious check posts en route as we were headed for the restricted province of Badakhshan. The first check post posted no problems. Gadon, armed with our passports and GBAO permit disappeared inside the wooden box with few militia hanging around listless. Gadon emerged triumphant shortly waving us all inside since we would hop out at any opportunity to stretch our legs and limbs. At a roadside stall Gadon picked up a ripe watermelon of massive proportion.

Within few hours we started climbing up sinew mountain path with sheer precipices on several sides. I eye the distant ranges through which our road cuts like a silvery ribbon, twisting and turning, appearing and merging and shimmering all along like the magic trail of a meteor. We crossed sleepy villages, lazing hamlets, gushing waterfalls, corn and sunflower fields and orchards full of plump pomegranates, apples, grapes, apricots, peaches and plums. At several bridges we spied abandoned Russian tanks half-submerged in the rushing streams, sitting like a giant toad. What amazed me that no one had yet taken them apart and sold off for scrap. Even after twenty years of independence, Russian relics were there to see and remind the Tajiks of their turbulent dominion.

The place where we stopped for lunch had three eateries side by side, the first manned by a manly man, the second by a manly woman and the third by a gaggle of beautiful Tajik women all within their bloom. I headed for the third while Gadon wanted us to get into the first. After a brief battle I gave up in favor of Gadon, may be he gets some commission from this one. But while leaving I did visit the third shop and bought few boiled eggs from the pretty girls, who giggled at my hat and antics.

After crossing our third check post, Gadon suddenly started waving his right palm in front of his face in such animation that I thought he had been bit by something or he was about to collapse and wanted one of us to take the wheel. I looked closely but he was smiling and staring out of the windshield simultaneously. Then he pointed out with his index finger and again waved his palm upon his face. So following his index finger I found a sheer cliff with an exact silhouette of a man’s face. Sharp forehead, beaky nose and high pointed chin… goodness I almost cried, it was such a remarkable shape. It reminded me of El Capitan Nose.

The road is more empty and less crowded, long stretches of fields, streams, valleys, cliffs, mountains and then suddenly a little patch of lush green, few tin roofed houses, orchards, and children and women sitting by the roadside washing carpets, clothes or donkeys on the street. Broken down vehicles and mini vans, axle rolling on ground, oil leakage, burst tires, etc were in abundance proclaiming the condition of the highway. Whenever human presence (except those in uniforms) materialized we waved and were waved back with equal gusto. At a maize field, a group of ladies literally lined up throwing their bosom out and waists in, posing for Christine’s lens. We crossed several cycling groups, mostly from Germany, Poland, Swiss, Italy, UK, etc and one antediluvian pair of great grand mom and pop slowly chugging up on the steep mountain path towards the highest pass on the way to Badakhshan. But for my respect for their zeal and dignity, I would have gladly offered them my seat and hopped on to the roof of our car.

As we climbed higher the air cooled and my spirit lifted. The road became narrower with longer zigs and zags. Suddenly the vast slopes appeared decked with endless carpets of yellow and pink and violet flowers. We soon crossed the Khaburabot pass at 3252 m and then zapped down the other side and made it to Kalai Khum in about 9 hrs from Dushanbe.

It was dark by the time we reached and in the darkness we found our guesthouse where we were paying 20 $ a night including food. The frothing Pyanj River flew next door and it roared unseen within the surrounding darkness. At the guesthouse we found three Italians whom Laura had met earlier, on their way to Murghob. We exchanged some niceties while dinner was being served. Post dinner Pat decided to unfurl, Laura decided to curl while Chris and I decided to twirl around the little town. Walking in semi darkness we witnessed a marriage. The bride was cute, the groom and his friends were totally drunk, and the guests were happy and inebriated. The night passed in a twinkle.

Next morning breakfast is a sumptuous offering of assorted breads, naan, chicken sausage, single fried eggs, honey, tea, coffee, raspberry juice, watermelon and thin cut cucumbers along with a bucket full of toffees. We soon crossed a bridge over a rushing gorge and had our first proper sighting of Afghanistan across the Pyanj River that formed a natural border between the two nations. Now we were inside the Pamir. Locally this region is called Bami Duniya or roof of the world and in Persian Pamir means ‘rolling pastureland’ and for obvious reasons, since most of the mountains and cliffs seem to be made on stacks of rock layers, the Chinese call them ‘Onion Mountains’. On the map the road is marked as Pamir Highway or M41 and it is supposed to be one of the greatest road journeys in the world. I could see why!

Most places the road is less than a road but more than a trail, it has bumps, ditches and glitches aplenty with skyrocketing cliffs on one side that could collapse any moment and the black turbulent river on another where if one fell would certainly be doomed. There are curvy curves, blind ends, and land and rock slides, overflowing streams all along. Air is cold and crisp with the typical clarity of the mountains. Perched high above from the road are tiny villages stuck to the steep slopes wherever a stream or spring has emerged. Pamir Mountains are a world like no other; home to Marco Polo Sheep, ibex, snow leopards and at least half dozen confirmed sighting of Yeti or the abominable Snowman, the place is the stuff of legends. There are several peaks above 7000m and many above 6000 with plenty of possibilities for new routes and first ascents.

Gadon keeps us grounded with his eyes on the road while we peer out of the windows and enjoy the breathtaking scenery, waving intermittently at the passing hamlets. The contrast between the two nations separated only by a river couldn’t be more stark or apparent. On the Tajik side, all thanks to the Soviet occupation, there are roads, electric lines, proper houses, mobile towers, 4X4 vehicles (mostly in good conditions), well groomed and healthy people dressed in modern apparels, etc while on the Afghan side there’s only a faint foot trail and barely any signs of anything else. There is no electricity, no plumbing or water supply, the villages are all made up of mud houses and all the people we could see wore the typical lose salwar kameez with Persian cap or turbans on their head. All the women wore full body burkhas. I wondered what did they think of the Tajik side as they would stare across the river, barely couple of hundred meters away, from their dark houses into the well lit ones.

We crossed one big military base and then a bridge across which one could enter Afghanistan and then another town and finally sighted the deserted runway of Khorog (the headquarters of GBAO). There are many stories about this infamous runway and it is rumored that during the Soviet era this was the only airport for which pilots were paid risk money to fly in and out since one could never predict what would happen. Presently the flights from Dushanbe only operate if weather permits and it seems the weather doesn’t permit most of the days. You can’t book ticket in advance for this route and have to queue in the morning and then jostle and wrestle till you get to the counter, only to be told most of the times that the seats are full or overfull. They do allow at times double passenger meaning one can sit on someone else’s lap. Even if you do get to buy a ticket, it isn’t a guarantee you would fly and they have a policy of no refund. So take your chances if you wish to fly to Khorog. We were far happier with Gadon piloting us through.

Khorog turns out to be a typical one central street township with totally unimaginatively architectured buildings on both sides. It sprawls on either side of the Pyanj River that runs through. There are pathways and driveways for crossing. As one enters the town, you cross a bustling taxi stand, followed by the main bazaar, then banks, and few imposing buildings, football fields, and parks. Typical Soviet design and entirely monochromatic in contrast to the brightly colored dresses of the people and women on the streets. We finally reached our Khorog abode of Laalmo Homestay. Two kilometers away from the bazaar, across the river, LH was a dream come true to my fruitarian appetite.

We sniffed the scent even before we found it. LH has a garden full of apricot, raspberry, cherry, peach, apple and grape foliages along with dahlias, sunflower, lilies, bougainvilleas and bushes of tiny red flowers with white stems. All the fruit trees were full and ripe, bending under their loads. While my companions sprawled around, I hopped inside the garden and ate to my heart’s fill. The cool breeze and the snow capped mountains around only heightened my desire to taste everything that I could as if there was no tomorrow. Soon the lady of the house came out to greet us.

Laalmo Muborakkadamova is a big Uzbek Mama with a bigger heart that is simply overflowing with milk of human kindness and with three gold capped teeth on her upper dentures when she smiles she really dazzles radiating like the moon and she speaks moderately good English. Her daughter speaks better English and helps her mother to look after the guests. LH is super clean, smells divine and the the shower has a bath tub; rooms are cozy and comfortable. Anyone visiting Khorog, I strongly recommend LH. For me the obvious winning point was the orchard and the gardens. Soon she served us an ensemble of jams and preserves made out of her garden produces along with soft breads, tea, dry fruits, lollies and another dazzling smile. We sat on the large wrought iron carpeted divan outside under the berry tree and jumped in the festivity. In the evening I went out for a walk along the river lined apricot orchards and joined the ladies in picking the fruits from ground. Dinner was sumptuous and the way I was hogging, I felt that this time at least I was sure to gain weight. She served the special pudding of Khekhst, the famous Pamiri dessert that a newlywed wife prepares for her newly henpecked hubby. It can be prepared otherwise too, as today. Made of flour, butter, milk and sugar, it is solid and really sweet. Nothing like I have tasted before.

With Gadon’s flight taking off at 6 am, breakfast was served sharp at 5.30 and what a spread it was! Only Patricia and I ate, the balance I tucked inside my pack, after all no point in wasting such good food since in the days to come we would be frightfully short of such delicacies. As we left, the sweet lady and her daughter came to see us off and she handed me a large packet of freshly plucked apricots, apples and grapes all at no cost at all. We now drove due south following the serpentine Pyanj River all along. Intermittent signboards cautioning landmine areas added some thrill to the journey. Broken tanks here and there now part of the landscape. We crossed few foreign cyclists pedaling slow and hard on the uphill road and one solitary pair of hikers who seemed merry despite the toil and the apparent road to nowhere. There were loosely scattered bus stands, each decorated with stones depicting some Pamiri landscape or wildlife. Around 3 hrs later we sighted the bridge just short of the village of Ishkashim (Tajik side) where we would cross into Afghan side. This bridge now offers the only safe international land border crossing into Afghanistan.

Gadon turned off the road towards the spiked metal gate on the bridge. A pair of young soldiers smiled at us while swinging the gate open. Gadon cautioned us not to take out our cameras. We crossed the bridge and reached into the no man’s land, the buffer zone between the two nations. The border between Tajik and Afghan is rather porous and obfuscated and large amount of drugs are smuggled and traded into Tajik on its way to the west, hence the Tajik militia is always on the watch while the Afghans didn’t really care.

Gadon dropped us outside the customs house, shook our hands and left. In all possibility we would never sight him again. During our one night stay at Khorog we befriended another individual named Otambek, who would prove to be of immense value and aid on our return.

The Tajik custom was customary, a smart man named Shodi and a smart woman named whatever, both interested more in Bollywood than anything else. They had a brief look at our bags and let us pass. The immigration was manned by three burly men in uniform, each thinking he is the latest incarnation of Rambo and behaving like one, especially with the ladies looking on. After few more minutes we were let through and then a short walk of few meters and suddenly I stepped onto the Afghan soil. Slipping back by 30 minutes in time zone in one simple step and a childhood dream come true for me. But for the gun totting Afghan border guards I might have genuflected upon the ground and kissed it like the promised land of Mecca. It read exactly 9 am Afghan time on my watch.

The Afghan border police personnel seem jovial and smiling, they speak to us in Persian and upon learning I am from India (Hindustan) they embrace me like a brother. One of them speaks few words of Urdu and we manage somehow. They are amused at seeing one male with three women and the huge amount of luggage we carry. We get our visas stamped and baggage checked. They are thorough and we are not allowed to carry the petrol that we had bought in Khorog for our expedition. Then comes a surprise; we have to take a compulsory dose of polio vaccination. We swallowed the bitter drops and carried our bags to the other side of the bridge and then be on proper official Afghan soil.

We meet a smart young fellow named Adab Shah, who is there to receive Laura, while we would be met by someone named Farhad, whom Wakhan Tourism, our support agency had sent for us from Eishkashim Village. Adab speaks fluent English with an American accent and he would prove an asset in the near future. He departs in a ramshackle vehicle with Laura. Our guy arrives sometime later inside a broken Toyota corolla and declares himself utterly ill and he looks it. We pile ourselves and few of our bags and chug along the road that is nothing more than asphalt and rock and gravel all bulldozed beneath a bulldozer and road roller. So we jump and bump forming lumps on our head. Finally on an upslope the vehicle stalls and stops, belching out dark rancid smoke from all its orifices. We get off; push the vehicle till it starts. Green fields start appearing and high rise mountains, brown below, white above tower all around.

Our carrier rattles and rumbles, we jostle and jest, slowly but surely we gain ground and mud huts with broken walls and roof lines up on the sides. Dirty disheveled kids, rider less donkeys, wild horses, plastics and human waste fill up the horizon. We finally reach the village bazaar, which was as shanty and dirty a bazaar could be but barely any people since there are barely any people to begin with. After the bazaar the road dips down along a stream and we sight a towering wall of ice on the horizon as do few other white peaks peek at us from different directions. We see a signboard of Central Asia Institute, the organization that builds and runs school all through northern Pakistan and Afghanistan along with Greg (Three Cups of Tea fame). Wading another stream over big boulders we finally reach our guesthouse named Juma and Marco Polo. The vehicle just reaches the guesthouse gate and finally dies down with a sputter stutter and a big shudder.

A rotund smiling man (who later turns out to be the owner) and a smiling giant (turns out to be the cook) emerge from the gate and help us carry our bags inside. The giant picks up two of our bags, easily weighing above 50 kg as if it were filled with feather and leads us in.

And with that we conclude our journey upon a road less traveled and much more troubled. And before I forget, for all the risks and perils to life and limb we endured during our passage from the border to the village guesthouse, we had to pay 20 $ to the driver for all his trouble.

The journey will continue further… but now I need my rest since writing this piece has been no less exhausting than the journey itself. So don’t go anywhere and I shall be back soon after a short non-commercial break.