Pakistan originally appeared on my horizon while thumbing though magazines somewhere in Ho Chi Minh City. My original trip was deemed by fate. At some point I found myself, 24, and sitting at a Bangkok cafe on Khao San Road. I had finished nearly six weeks of walking from Saigon. I was young and impressionable. [...]
Pakistan originally appeared on my horizon while thumbing though magazines somewhere in Ho Chi Minh City. My original trip was deemed by fate. At some point I found myself, 24, and sitting at a Bangkok cafe on Khao San Road. I had finished nearly six weeks of walking from Saigon. I was young and impressionable. In Saigon I had been teaching English for a year and the desire to be footloose and free from the burden of anything resembling work was overwhelming.
My housemate at the time was a big brawny talkative New Yorker. He had a gift for languages (was fluent or semi-fluent in 6 or 7). It was good as it gave him the ability to talk to more people. If you listened to him talk long enough he would eventually answer his own questions, I used to joke. Over beers he used to openly wonder about being able to purchase a Somali passport or would dare me to race motorbikes through a pool hall to see who get hit with a pool cue first. He neither got a Somali passport nor was hit by a pool cue. I can safely say the same for myself.
One day he came home with a short middle aged Malaysian woman.
“I met her at the Bangladeshi Consulate in Calcutta,” he explained. “I saw her and she appeared like Buddha. She was just simply waiting. So we struck up a conversation, didn’t get visas and went to karaoke.”
“He knew all the Hindi songs!,” the Malaysian buddha mused.
Her name was Shirin and she intended to stay for a week. Despite having successfully freed myself from the pressures of graduate school, car purchasing, settling down or any other material pressure in Kentucky, in my mind I hadn’t accomplished anything. The adventures always seemed to be somewhere on the horizon. One solitary weekend during a dark night on the southern tip of Vietnam, the visions of adventures somewhere else seemed to be under my skin (not quite right). As I ate noodles next to the dark South China Sea, it wasn’t enough. The adventures, the dashing and daring were like the waves just beyond my eyesight. Able to be smelled and heard but not visible to my eye or able to be touched. I still felt I was sitting on the edge of Asia. It would take years and a helluva lot more kilometers before I could see that sometimes the adventure was sitting right next you
Shirin was a godsend, the mentor I needed. One night in a psychedelic haze in Nashville during my misspent university holidays, it seemed to me that I was shown a person behind the shadows that I had to follow. That growth was possible but only if someone could show me where to plant the tree. (this might be too hippie-airey fairey)
This Malaysian Buddha was my godsend. She knew yoga and spent her mornings and afternoons painting. One of our first trips together was to a university in Saigon where there were hopes of cheap paint and supplies. We were promptly invited for tea and spent the afternoon watching students paint as the while the monsoon rain filled the streets . Watching the rain platter on the deep green trees outside while the bird like syllables of Vietnamese instructed students of their next brush stroke. The square window hovering above the thousands of motorbikes, above the millions of people, provided me with more entertainment and more emotional depth than any square that I watched for thousands of hours growing up.
The world of simply drawn characters and canned laughter seemed archaic and boring. It was the first realizations that life could be lived differently and independently. The world was coming closer and yet more complex at the same time.
It’s hard for people who haven’t taught English in some parts of Asia how stupendously priviledged one could be. You could simply leave your house with a key for you doors and a few dollars in your pocket and who knows where you will end up. Any emotional experience or any sensory explosion was quite simply the click of a door handle away, all for the price of the movement of your feet.
simply carried a mat with her wherever she went and slept where she could. Shirin could read my wanderlust and loved having a captive audience for the retelling of her overland adventures from Malaysia to Germany and back.
Summer holidaying in Turkey, squatting in Berlin, sleeping in caves in India, but she seem to lay special emphasis on the North of Pakistan. I asked questions and asked questions. Were the people in Pakistan dangerous, would you be kidnapped in Pakistan, isn’t it dangerous, can I get a visa? In my head Pakistan was simply a terrorist ridden desert wasteland, an image cultivated by a steady diet of news back in States. I honestly didn’t know anyone could go there.
“Of course there are people,” she snapped. “My first trip I went withe 2 germans and we met people from all over Europe and even two people had children and were hitchhiking.
“But how did they get food? I mean were there shops?”
Shirin handled by ignorant stupidity with aplomb. Years later over dinner at her uncles house in KL, she told me I had that rare gift.
“Your were willing to do anything!,” she laughed as the words came out, even now I can here that laugh as clearly as I can hear the airplane flying overhead as I type this.
I was fascinated with her, she was the living incarnate of everything I wanted to be. Her passport was better than any Lonely Planet phrasebook I ever saw.
“Bask in the rebellious nature of it,” she told me. “Your parents wouldn’t go there. When the old people start going, then the adventure is over.”
Somewhere along the way I found the Time magazine. It was their Asia edtion and like most mainstream news that extrapolates the mundane and obvious I couldn’t tell you one single story of that issue, what I can remember vividly is a picture of a jewelry salesman in a Pakistani city. The picture was taken at night with a bright image of the salesman talking to a large policeman with a large mustache. (the freddie mercury force I would later call them.) This photo seemed to encapsulate something for me, even now I can’t put my finger on it. The forbodeing blackness in the distant, the danger implied by the police officer, and the lure of gold and perhaps a cup of tea (which was daintily sitting next to the salesman)
Slowly the questions I asked Shirin about her European travelers started to turn in my head. It changed from how did they get food to how would I get food until there was no more questions at all, just I will get food. But this is getting ahead in the story.
At the time in HCMC, we lived in district 10, in what best could be described as a palatial mansion. I am still amazed at the sheer amount of space that we could afford (and waste.) It was in a wealthy part of town in a small community with similar houses, built up, but not with width, it reminds one of a series of legos a giant child would be able to put together. We were a stone’s throw away from the airport, where old bombers sat parked and where one entrepurnual Vietnamese man even opened a cafe in passengers area of an abandoned plane. I was used to seeing Vietnamese hang laundry from old planes, but this was the first cafe. (not on topic perhaps)
My old Americanisms still clung to me like a bad smell. When I saw the old planes I couldn’t help but sing Purple Haze or imagine myself Charlie Sheen walking into ‘the shit.’ In reality I was saving money teaching English and living in a mansion. I was basically the living embodiment of a hamburger stand with a communist flag flying above it. (rambling)
Shirin wanted me to change and see the world from a wider perspective. Our friendship (tutorial) became more earnest. We started doing yoga in the mornings and gargling salt water. My diet started to improve.
I would go for long drives deep into the night in an empty and shuttered up Ho Chi Minh city. Sometimes I would drive well into the morning, finding some out of the way noodle shop buried in the labyrinthian alleyways. Sunrises were a special treat, over a bridge, watching the barges plow through and masses stomp their ryhthmic tai chi. The purring of my xe om (motorbike) and the wind in my hair through a city of millions that was virtually empty and dark seemed to be the ultimate sign of freedom. I would arrive in time for yoga. When I would arrive home I would find here sleeping on our roof under a small mosquito tent we bought somewhere in District 4. The yoga became a write of passage from the night meanderings into the world of daylight.
“To travel you need to be slim and able to move,” Shirin told me. “Diet is not enough, travelers move a lot.” She told me this one morning while gargling salt water. “Take of your teeth.” Snippets of advice blurted out hoping to filter through.
“You’ll find no-one cares about America the way you do out there,” she said walking past my as I lay in my room listening to Modest Mouse. The relationship was taking on a different approach, the one of teacher and student or something else. In retrospect it seems my personality at the time ceded a lot power or ego over to my mentor. I didn’t care at the time and I still don’t. I wanted my brain cleansed and I felt I had a powerful source of knowledge right in front of me. Hollywood endings and emotional changes of heart were fake and obsolete. I was realizing as this little mental journey went on how much I had been raised on neat conclusions and half hour plot summaries, the promise of a sunny weekend and new car.
The life of a traveler was more complicated and never as simple. By jumping ship to Vietnam I had found the seed and could see the ground where it needed to be planted, but I didn’t know how to get there. How live a real life and see real people seemed so far away.
The yoga progressed, my night drives incresaed, my teaching load remained steady.
“Fuck it, let’s go somewhere,” I said one morning.
“Great, where do you want to go, ” Shirin replied.
“Mekong Delta and the slow boat to Phu Quoc Island,” I read out of a dusty LP given to me as a Christmas present back on a snowy KY morning.
“Well, we will need a hammock,” my tutor replied. “Essential for sleeping for free.”
End of part one 1?
“Went to see the captain, strangest I could find, laid my proposition down, laid it on the line”
We sat across the street from a tall Buddhist shrine. That place had (and still does) a lot of significance for me from my time in Vietnam. The shrine was located about a five minute walk from the the school (Leecam) where I used to teach and everyday on my break during my split shifts I would go and walk up the five stories through its incense laden hallways and find a place to lay down and have a rest. I awoke one afternoon to find monk staring at me face to face, a look of serenity and calm pouring over him as I liked to think he was blessing in me and wishing me well.
Four years later when I returned to Vietnam to visit friends I made sure to be there on New Year’s Eve to wish for a happy new year for all my friends and relatives.
None of this was apparent while I sat waiting for the bus on that achingly hot day.
Shirin and myself had spent the better part of that week doing what most hardy budget travelers do. We bought supplies, poured over maps, cursed and consulted the Lonely Planet.
I had made friends with a tailor who lived in District 1 and with her help we were able to find a local mini-van who would take us down to the Mekong Delta. We were keen to avoid the infamous hop and hop off tourist bus that plys up and down the spine of the country. At this stage of my travel development I felt that for me to even remotely be considered a true traveler that I must do everything completely locally and as cheaply as possible. The hop on hop off bus was for packet tour junkets and I wanted to be further away from anything that represented middle class boredom, away from the places my suburban high school chums would have a laugh at.
Ironically as I sat sipping my ice coffee and eating a friend egg baguette I realized the ticket price was roughly the same as the one the tourist bus company offered. Nevermind, I thought at least this way the trip would be nothing but locals, packed mini bus filled with locals and the occasional snake or chicken or two.
After the usual delays and a few tire changes we were off. Through the grinding trafffic and the blaring horns in District 10 and past my fucking school and fucking work and that awful fucking jaguar trapped in a cage behind my fucking school. I had a window seat and the minibus was surprisingly uncrowded and I had a window seat and he drove down the highway towards the Mekong Delta.
I wish I could say I remembered more about this journey and all it entailed. The view from a window can be luxurious or it can also melt the inside of your mind. I remember deep green trees and big white billboards with cartoonish pictures of condoms on them, and almost like a practical joke hundreds of kids playing underneath the signs.
“Wow they really do have a lot of kids don’t they,” I commented to the driver. He grinned and nodded. The road drew on straight and underneath the deep green leaves…I thought of the road across Vietnam as a giant snake and we merely marbles on its belly, for now the snake was sleeping and pretty soon I was as well, sleeping as we passed the hundreds of roadside stands selling coconut juice and little snack packets and the occasional fried chicken on a wooden stick.
I awoke on the southern tip of Vietnam and the end of Asia I romanticized. I loved it all. The white marble statue of Ho Chi Minh that was the centre of town.
We stretched our legs and took a short walk around town.
After the usual delays
It must be morning, the usual on-lookers had gathered around our tiny apartment. I had grown accustomed to it by now. Today there were four. It looked like three women and one small child. Their hands cupped around their eyes and pressed against the window into our first floor bedroom. While the bright morning sun started beat down the streets of HCMC the curious gazers were sheltered by the tall statue of Ho Chi Minh that stood in the in the courtyard of our apartment complex.
It seemed to be alternating every morning from waking up with curious gazers (as we called them) or the soft smiling face of “Uncle Ho.” It seemed surreal were my life had taken me.
After our successful trip to Phu Quoc Island, I decided that a traveler had to live in simplicity. Out with the mansion and into something more basic and cheaper.
Shirin and myself started to scour the streets for a cheap simple rooms. The only rules seemed to be cheap and full of locals, I wasn’t planning on staying in a hostel or anywhere else. Despite my shocking Vietnamese language skills I wanted to be sure to have full immersion. For some reason I felt this was extremely important.
There seem to be surprises around every corner here in Gilgit. On my first night I grudgingly awoke from my stupor and wandered out of hotel room to refill my water bottle. As always, the Pakistani staff at our hotel immediately offered to go and refill the water. Such hospitality is hard to refuse.
Despite it being late I got the itchy feet to go for a walk and decided to make a break for our local corner store to add some biscuits to my order and possibly some kebabs. Before I had the chance a young man whom I had met earlier pulled up in his car, got out and decided to give me a ride around.
I had met Hussain a few days earlier against the backdrop of cigarette rolled hashish joints and cheaply packaged “Tea Rose” perfume which he happily shared.
The invitation for the drive around was accepted. Most of the cars on the road are smaller Toyotas but increasingly one sees newer and newer cars coming from China and Russia. Hussain had a newer model black Toyota with tinted windows. His car was his life he explained in broken Enlish with a few basic Urdu words
“I am salesman from Punjab. I drive my partner from Lahore. Selling things then return Lahore.”
I asked him what he sold.
“Everything,” Hussain replied.
I had met his business partner the day before and could personally attest that he meant everything. Across his room was boxes and items ranging from cricket bats, notepads, medicines, hashish, cloth, tissues, and conceivably every trinket that is for sale in Gilgit and perhaps in Pakistan.
Hussain opened a box of Tea Rose perfume and sprayed some on my shirt before wrapping it up.
“No problem,” he said.
Initially we stopped to buy biscuits and a chocolate and then back in the car.
“We go around and enjoy.” He moved his hands in a circular fashion to indicate he wanted to drive around Gilgit. I agreed although with some trepidation, with my initial fear being that he take me to some brothel or another unagreeable location.
Throughout the North West corner of Pakistan power is a commodity and electricity could be described as shotty at best. So Gilgit closes down at dark. Driving around at this late hour (10 pm) it could have been mistaken (insert descripter)s. The shutters were drawn and the streets completely empty, apart from the mandatory police checkpoints at every corner.
Along the sidewalks were countless groups of young men. Usually in groups of three or four, sometimes five, they represented the wide array of civilizations that have intersected this area. The dramatic contrast tempered by the monotony of the dress. All men were wearing pathan suits variating between grey, blue, or beige. The groups seemed content to stand and stare, awaiting that great mysterious SOMETHING that would appear. Behing my tinted windows I was glad I wouldn’t be that something…at least not tonight
“We go to airport, so clean so modern,” Hussain beamed and made the OK gesture with his hand. he reached for a tape from the glovebox and put on some mild but hypnotic trance music. The siren call beckoing travelers to part with their money to the taxi. I realized later that it was a veneer. He wanted to look like a taxi. As soon as we stopped at any checkpoint he would trip over his overhead light and the police saw me waved us through. they assumed I was a tourist hiring a taxi.
We drove on through the next few hours of the night. Through the backstreets of Gilgit. The trance music (maybe the hash) had put me into a lull, the shadowlands of India were seeming to follow me everywhere I went. Despite the lack of streetlights I could make most of the buildings. We drove around the roundabout with a giant Ibex statue and made our way back to our hotel.
About the Author: Lawrence Hamilton
Lawrence Hamilton is a freelance journalist focusing on South Asian security situations and border disputes. Lawrence Hamilton has written 52 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
Lawrence Hamilton is currently in: Dunedin, NZ