Long walk

Having nothing helpful to contribute in wisdom or recommendations concerning the current state of affairs, I have temporarily taken refuge in the past.

Having had more than enough of the “Raj Bazaar” in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tim, my travel buddy, and I decided to leave a day sooner than planned, to our next destination which was in Northwest Pakistan, close to the border with Afghanistan, namely Peshawar.

By himself, I have no doubt Tim would have enjoyed a ride on the “Flying Coach”, the garishly painted bus that drove at great speed as if always trying to make up for lost time. Presumably they had a timetable of sorts, but I wouldn’t guarantee how accurate it may have been. It was always packed solid.

Instead, as the cost was very reasonable, we hired a private car with driver for the three hour journey. On the way we stopped at Taxila, where we were shown statues of the Buddha, sculpted with obvious Greek influence. I had never thought that the Greeks travelled this far, but indeed they did and there was the evidence.

As we progressed into the countryside, we failed to leave behind the appalling air pollution. Tim and I could not decide if it was wood smoke, mist, diesel fumes, dust or factory emissions. I imagine it was a mixture of all the above. It was ghastly, reminding me of the terrible smog that blanketed London when I was a child. It was so dark, sometimes, birds would go to roost.

In Peshawar we once more lodged at a branch of the Pearl Continental Hotel. They were very accommodating, even if they did have almost the slowest meal service I have ever sat through.

The prize for that dubious honour goes to the Strand Hotel in Rangoon. But Rangoon is now Yangon and the Strand is now posh, so I’m sure service is more efficient these days.

Peshawar certainly gave the impression of the Wild Northwest. The gentleman in this picture was just hanging around in the street. There was nothing particularly unusual about the gear he was carrying and he was quite friendly. He didn’t mind at all that I took his picture.

Sometimes you get the feeling that people like this are employed by the local tourist board, but Peshawar was not really on the tourist beat and I had every reason to believe that this gentleman was “the real deal”.

According to the letter I sent to my mother, parts of Peshawar were “quite respectable, tidy and clean”, but Tim always preferred to visit the bazaar and the out-lying areas. I don’t need an old letter to remind me of what that was like. It was grim.

There were colourful things to be seen, however. I loved the bright red hats, although I chose to buy one that was cream-coloured fabric with gold thread embroidery. I was collecting hats at the time. At least this one didn’t take up much room.

There was much available in the way of fruits and vegetables, all beautifully stacked up. Baskets of nuts and dates and dried apricots. Tim and I were enjoying the local pomegranate juice but I had to give up on it as it began to corrode the lining of my stomach. Tim’s iron-lined gut was unaffected. I always travelled with an impressive medical kit, much to Tim’s amusement.

As far as I recall, the gentleman bottom right, above, was swinging his basket back and forth to sift the flour that he seems to be disappearing into. It was the same colour as the dust and the buildings lining the street.

The blood and gore of the meat market was especially horrid because of what I referred to as “adhesive” flies. You couldn’t get rid of them or wave them away. They just stuck on.

Tim was keen to try to see the Khyber Pass, even though we were told access was forbidden.

He hired a car and a driver that I was rather wary of. I wasn’t at all sure the whole thing was a good idea, but not wanting to be a party-pooper…

We took a ride of 45 kilometers. We were driven through what seemed to be a medieval village. Donkeys and buses and bicycles, horse-carts and people all mixed up, thick black smoke drifting across the road.

I’d considered myself tough, but it was like some sort of nightmare.

On this trip, I became aware of a new sensitivity, something I had never thought of before.

Never before had I been so bothered by the sheer intensity of NOISE! It was partly that all vehicles in Pakistan seemed to have such strident horns.

At lunch, the sound of the sitar player became too much. The musician seemed to be winding himself into a frenzy. I half expected him to disappear through the ceiling.

The Khyber Pass, we were told was out of the question. Landi Kotal, the closest village was off limits to foreigners.

But our driver would take us to Darra. Except that if we were stopped by the police, we were to say that we were going to Kohat. OK then!

We saw a lots more big guys with kalashnikov rifles and ammo. But not much else.

in this picture:Lady looking out of harem window.

Our driver stopped to take a few puffs on a hooka with some mates, then we went “home”.

So much for the Khyber Pass.

Next day Tim tried walking me to death.

We started at the Post Office, opposite which was a row of stores run by Afghan refugees. At that time there were 4 million of them in Pakistan. This was 1985. Today there are reported to be “only” 3 million.

We found all kinds of items to take back and sell in our fund-raiser. Beautiful woven scarves and tunics, semi-precious jewelry. I have forgotten what else.

As we walked along the road, we heard a voice calling to us from a window above one of the shops:

“English? American?”

Looking up we saw a smiling face peering down at us. “Wait…I send the children.” and two young kids came skipping toward us. One of them took me by the hand and led me through the shop and up a flight of stairs.

We were led inside a two room apartment to meet the father of the two children. They were a family of refugees from Afghanistan. The father was eager to speak English and I think also to hear news from the outside world.

They were such a lovely family. I’m not sure how many were sharing the apartment but certainly two married couples plus a number of children.

Many people had to make do with a bed in the outside corridor as you can see in the photograph. And they probably felt lucky.

One of the little girls insisted on giving me a gift. It was a ring that had been a give-away inside a box of cereal. I am sure it was her only treasure but it meant more to her to give it to me, a perfect stranger. I was touched and sad that I didn’t have anything on me that I could give in exchange.

I have often thought of that family over the years.

After about an hour Tim and I continued The Long Walk. Understand, I have problem feet. The spirit is willing, but the body, not so much. Even 35 years ago!

At some stage in the afternoon, when I still retained some sense of humour, we came upon this item, but Tim wouldn’t let me buy it. Just because we would have trouble at the airport.

It’s a little hard to read but it claims to be:

Super Asia Deluxe-85 Washing machine/Dryer machine/Air cooler

All in one.

There was some sort of ugly monument in the bazaar. So ugly I didn’t photograph it. I can’t find it on the Internet so maybe some inspired person knocked it down. But we walked and we walked and I lost count of how many damn times we came back past that horrible thing. In the end I called it a rude name and threatened what I would do if I saw it one more time. Tim took the hint.

But it wasn’t the horrible monument, or the fact that my feet nearly fell off that made this day memorable. And it wasn’t the dirt and the flies or the old leper with a caved-in toothless face, who clutched my hand in his stumps and rubbed his face all over it.

What really finally got to me and made it one of those unforgettable days, was the old beggar, struggling along the street, carrying an old woman on his back. The image is still in my mind. I felt useless, the way I feel each time a black person is killed in this country by a police officer. I feel rage that people suffer so and there is nothing I can do to make it stop.

That night I lay awake thinking of that old couple and heard a loud noise, suddenly, in the distance, somewhere in the city. In the morning I told Tim I’d heard a noise that I thought was a bomb and he looked at me as if I was a drama queen. But when he turned the TV on, sure enough, something had been blown up in the night.

We were leaving that day and I can’t say I was sorry. We boarded a Pakistan International flight to Lahore where, as they cheerfully announced on the PA “We shall arrive In-shallah”.

The picture is out of focus but in a way it works.

Something about the frightened look on the girl’s face and the way she is clutching the boy’s hand.

I captured the image, but not the story.

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