What a trip. What diversity in images, people, experience over the past month. I am supposed to be well traveled but maybe it has been too long since I had a long rewarding trip like this one or maybe there is much more to the American continent than initially meets the eye. At any rate, the past month has been a cascade of very differing emotions and expression ranging 5 time zones even if it only spanned two different languages (I will not count Dutch which is never heard on St. Maarten nor the Gaelic signs that I saw in Nova Scotia). I shudder to think of the total budget of this trip, all including 9 car rentals, 32 flights and countless hotels, luckily also quite a few overnights with friends. At any rate the budget is well into 5 digits in euros and I can’t say I went in for excess luxury in any way… The trip, by the end of it, will hopefully see me with 37 more ‘points’ on the MTP scoreboard and finally well into the top 100, and also 8 points on the TCC group’s list of 319, getting me past the 250 limit with them too. So it has been uplifting not only spiritually but also statistically. And if there is one thing that has surprised me, it is my energy. I don’t know where I get it given I am no longer 20, but it’s like being a Duracell bunny, never tired. I proved it most in Seattle where, after a cancelled flight and with 5 hours to spare, I wasn’t happy just lounging it at the airport, no, I took the bus to Tacoma (the other side of the bay) and here there were no ‘points’ to be gained. It was just pure curiosity to see the place. In that, I suppose I am not so different from my father.
The Caribbean portion of the trip now seems ever so long ago, even though it was only 3 weeks ago I left from the island of St. Thomas to do the US mainland. The Caribbean has never been a favourite of mine, actually it is quite a sham if you ask me, the beaches can be nice, that is true, but the places are unfriendly, overpriced and too full of tourists, making them less than exceptional. After an 8 and a half hour flight from Paris to Martinique, and I have to say that paying 250 euros extra for ‘business class’ on Corsair was well worth the investment, and it was one of my best flights ever, on the top deck of a 747-400, I was not going to sleep. Upon landing and getting my rental, off I went to what I was told was an unmissable sight, a rum distillery featuring a hacienda and nice vegetation too. In a few minutes, there I was, as awake as ever, going through the rum bottles and taking in the palms and the creole artifacts in the same time that another traveler would still be at the airport. The whole trip has been one big rush, I admit, but then again there are only 2-3 places where I would have liked to spend more time.
One of these is the island of St. Barthelemy, which I visited the day after, having woken up at in Martinique to see the capital, Fort-de-France before going to the airport, and then having also done Guadeloupe, which was another disappointing Caribbean experience and rather shamefully is a part of the EU, fully fledged too. Any delusions I might have had about moving to a ‘tropical paradise’ which was still the EU were quickly dashed seeing the ugly blocks of Pointe-a-Pitre and the ever so cheap beaches, featuring older white ladies with their black toy-boys. St. Barts was the pure antithesis to all this, very small indeed (all of 10 kms or so in length and less in width) but highly elegant. This used to be Swedish so the minute capital is called Gustavia, and every beach here was pictureworthy, not to mention the winding roads. At my cute little hotel, called Hotel Normandie, the pretty girl at the reception was French. The ideal job? You get tired of the beaches eventually, she told me. You get tired of the mountains immediately, I retorted about my situation, for St. Barts seemed to encapsulate everything an island should be, elegant, unhurried, expensive yes but at the same time approachable and friendly. This is the place I will choose for my honeymoon, if ever…
St. Maarten/St. Martin was next, an unavoidable transit point to get to Anguilla, which was unexceptional in everything. I did rent a car on St. Maarten too, and crossed the invisible border four times between France and the Netherlands…this added some spin on the proceedings, in a day which saw me cross borders a total of 10 times or so (if we count my shenanigans on the island), what with Anguilla included and then ending up on Antigua, for the next day’s frisson, which would be the devastated island of Montserrat. You would think that by now, day 3 of the trip, I would be exhausted, but no. Like a vampire with blood, the more I travel, the more I am awake…
Montserrat was by far the highlight of those first days of the trip. What could be more thrilling than a place ravaged by a disaster, the bottom half of which is out of bounds, where the population have fled mainly to the UK (to which the island belongs) and where a new capital is being built at the ‘safe’ north end, to be complete in, say, 10 years? My friendly driver George had lived for a few years after the blast in Milton Keynes, of all places. Given that my British papers are ‘based’ in Milton Keynes, we were practically neighbours. Montserrat was rugged and empty, and for once it felt as if the UK has really done some good here, trying to help the poor island on its feet. The new capital is far from completion, only the enormous cultural centre building stands. Being here for 9 hours was probably double the time necessary to see the lush rainforest, some miserable falls (the good ones were by the volcano and a highlight in the days when cruise ships used to come here) but for me the best part was crossing what used to be the golf course, now completely grey by the lava which covered the area – this was as far as we could go without a special permit. From the hill top, what is left of Plymouth is visible quite well and the smokey volcano is…well…still smokey and threatening as hell. Photos of the burned old airport were to be seen at the observatory where a distinctly unfriendly Indian girl unwillingly showed me a 20-minute video. I would have thought she would be delighted that eventually a tourist appeared on the island, for this is certainly only for ‘collectors’, and the only way to get here is the flight from Antigua on the tiny Twin Otter plane of Winair. Oddly, the same (Australian!) pilots who had taken me from St. Barts to St. Maarten also flew me to Montserrat from Antigua. I suppose that is a fun job too. Sea, sun and smokey volcano all day.
After Montserrat, neither British nor US Virgin Islands could do anything for me apart from empty out my pockets, and these boring lush islands can only be paradise for the least choosy of newlyweds. The US Virgin Islands were bought from Denmark, so there is a bit of interesting architecture around, but nothing you can’t safely skip in favour of other sights (like Montserrat, where they need every penny they can get, poor things).
Once I hit the mainland US, I needed not less, but more energy than ever. I wizzed into downtown Atlanta for an hour during transit only to freak at what I saw. I think for any European, the idea of a town centre being devoid of life is just alien. I don’t think I have ever been more scared (and this is coming from me, mr. fearless) than by being the only one to be roaming (with my bag too) the streets of downtown Atlanta. Clearly not a good idea at all. Memphis was little better, and I won’t even mention all the places I drove though in forgettable States like Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri or Indiana. If there are no tourists here, it isn’t because of the devastation, at least not the naturally caused one. Graceland, however, was well worth the detour, to indulge into a bit of Elvis-mania. The fact that the legend lives on, generation after generation, and the mass of products available with the Elvis logo (someone making loads of money out of this) are proof of capitalism if there ever was one. I have always said the US scare me, and after this trip, I can only leave more convinced than before that this is a very scary land indeed. Towns with no heart, just a periphery, sights with little substance, just gloss, and, in reality, a very boring country indeed, barring a few natural wonders that have happened to be here for centuries before the creation of any ‘American Dream’.
Following a pleasant transit stop in Birmingham, Alabama, where the Nigerian taxi driver took me for a quick tour of the town where the civil rights movements grew (and I must say, this is one of the leafier and more pleasant of the towns I saw), I finally got geared for part 2 of the trip which I could call the ‘visiting’ part. This would have significantly less adventure value, and very little ‘getting points’ value, but would be mainly spent with people…and what is life without people, after all? My first stop was Glen in Houston, Texas. I met Glen for one single evening, quite accidentally, back in Amsterdam in 1995. I was an MBA student and he was there on a short training course, his first trip outside his native India. Flash forward almost 14 years later, where he is already a U.S. citizen, following 11 years in Texas working with IBM as a software engineer, and I, well…we know what I am up to! At any rate, it was great seeing him again, as intelligent conversationalists are very hard to come by. My main impression was how unfulfilled he was in the U.S. despite what I would only describe as a house to die for (given I am homeless, this struck a chord even more than usual), a partner he has been together with for years and a job he loves. And yet, somehow he seemed restless and troubled, out of place in Texas (that is can understand) and kept on commenting on how the American way of life promotes selfishness and there is very little community spirit, despite appearances. He has his circle, but somehow, this isn’t it. He envied my freedom, which isn’t a first I suppose. At any rate, we took in a number of activities, including karaoke at a friend’s birthday party and also a game of the Houston Astros baseball team which, as Glen put it, ‘is an excuse for people to get out of the house and to eat without feeling they went out for the purpose of eating’. Two days in Texas was just about right I think, and it would have been less had I not had Glen there.
My horror would only be even more magnified in Las Vegas, which was a last minute addition to the trip as a compromise with my friend Lydia from Greece, who was travelling the US at the same time. I had wanted us to do New Mexico (and get a point) but the flights didn’t work out and so we opted for Vegas, which was something I wanted to see again, given my memory of it at the age of 9 was distinctly blurry. Impressions: this is hell on earth. Lydia and I were stupefied at the amount of ugly, obese and badly dressed people (the term is an insult to people, let me note) who were at the slot machines as if there was no tomorrow, almost as if they had been collectively drugged into feeding the machines for more money…We ended up making a farce of it by trying to photograph the ugliest examples. Finally we found some elegance in the nicely designed Wynn hotel, where we also had dinner on our last night, finally feeling more like humans than like cattle as we had done previously. The décor of the Caesar’s Palace has to be seen to be believed, and I will leave the photos in the Las Vegas section of my site tell the story better than any words can. For good measure, we did the day tour of the Grand Canyon too, just as well, or I might have to go back to Vegas to do it and that is not something I ever want to experience, at least not for the following decades or so… I left Lidia in tears on her return to Greece. She told me she felt there was nothing for her to return to there. Is this a trend or was this yet another person unhappy where they are who seeks solace in travelling?
Part II, Hotel Ile de France, St. Pierre, St. Pierre & Miquelon, July 17
Lord is St. Pierre quirky. I don’t know what historical accident resulted in this remaining French when the whole of humongous Canada became British. At any rate, more French a place would be hard to find, even the sockets are European, not to mention a French flag at every corner… However 26 and a half hours here are probably around 24 hours too many. Coming here has finally allowed me to unwind and relax because there has been nothing to do, not to mention fog and rain in the middle of what should be summer. The town is pretty enough with nice wooden houses in different colours and the sights include the church, the post office, a heritage museum which you can do in 15 minutes plus a walk to the lighthouse and to the mountain for a panorama. The nice little café ‘La Butte’ has great artwork and decent soup and sandwich, and the people here are more than friendly. One guy gave me a lift to the top of the mountain, not to mention the lady who brought me into town from the otherwise entirely abandoned airport (and I was hoping to rent a car…). I think it is very rarely I leave a place in the knowledge that I will never see it again, but it’s safe to say that, with this place conquered officially, there is little reason to make a comeback…there is so much more to see out there…
But flashback to Idaho, where I landed after having had a day of 6 US States. Starting at in Vegas, my plane landed in Denver and I manically rushed to the rent a car office, with just enough hours to dash to Cheyenne in Wyoming and then east through the Nebraska border before making it back to the airport in time for my flight, via SaltLake in Utah, to Idaho. SaltLake was a nice surprise and my driver was not a Mormon, not even white, he was from Uganda. I have never seen more delight than his when I told him I was British. He showed me around the town, dominated by Mormon stuff of course, but very neat and tide, much more so than most US cities. The location is stunning as the plane lands, with mountains on the one side and the large lake on the other – making it one of the most picturesque landings around. And then, after giving the Ugandan a generous tip (I decided I could be generous, poor thing is stuck with Mormons everywhere, he deserves all the help he can get), an hour later Pamela would wait for me in Boise, Idaho. On the plane there was a woman who noticed I was wearing a T-shirt with ‘Bhutan’ written on and asked me if I had been. Needless to say, she was not American, rather British…what she was doing on a flight from SaltLake to Idaho is anybody’s guess.
Seeing Pamela is always great. I always wonder how it is possible that a Hollywood actress of considerable popularity in her time could find me interesting and appealing…but she does somehow. It was great seeing her, such a positive spirit despite her own woes and troubles. I mean, she is 56 now, and she, too, confessed to the problems of finding a suitable mate and of the feeling of insecurity on what is to come. We made a pact to travel together once her son Nicky goes to college in September. Meanwhile in small Hailey, Idaho, we witnessed the July 4th parade, a very American and rather disappointing experience in that I expected more fanfare really. Sun Valley, however, the ski resort playground of many a rich and famous (Ernest Hemingway among them) proved to be so similar to Switzerland I could have screamed, but certainly was the antithesis of cheap, ludicrous Las Vegas, and represents the cream of what America has to offer, at a price of course: if you can cough up the money, then for sure you can be part of the Sun Valley crowd, elegant, beautiful homes, a few rather kitschy, but many understated and just plain savvy. The winters must be dire though, so I’ll skip that thank you. Via youtube, I took in an episode of FantasyIsland in which Pamela had guest starred back in 1980. I thought it quite cool to be in her lovely house, very tastefully designed with a lovely garden, while watching vestiges of her former glory which she had denounced in favour of a quite life in the middle of nowhere. Brave woman, Pamela. Also among the best the US has to offer, and very down to earth.
The last stop of part 2 of the trip was Vancouver, a bit of a throwback to the past as I had been an exchange student here in 1996 and hadn’t been back sine 1998. I always say that this is the most beautiful town in the world despite vast amounts of rain and rather ill-integrated minorities. This impression was just confirmed on this visit, during which I stayed with Brad, who had been in my dorm back in 1996 when he was just 18. We realized we had never really spent time alone, just the two of us, but somehow we kept in touch over the years, our interest in travel and aviation making the thread of postcards just enough for me to crash at his place for two days. He took the Tuesday off to show me around and we braved the dreadful rain to see lovely StanleyPark and revisit our ex dorm on UBC campus. This was all very pleasant indeed. I think I could stay in Vancouver for weeks without getting bored, although I am probably idealizing.
Part 3 of the trip can be described as ‘Canada enhancement’. Enhancement is the term I choose to use for more thorough visits of countries (especially large ones) that I should know better than I do, like Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, India and China… I started the enhancement with the easiest of the lot really, as touring Canada in the summer (when the weather is not prohibitive) could be attempted by a two year old. My itinerary took me first to Whitehorse in Yukon, which is, what in Serbian can be called a ‘vukojebina’ (look it up if you had to) but certainly fulfils the off the beaten track list. With little to do, I decided to drive 180 kms to Skagway in Alaska, thereby crossing a border in the process. I picked up three post-teenage German hikers on the way who stank to high heaven (presumably they hadn’t had a shower in days) and told me they had embarked on a 2-year trip starting in Alaska and aiming to end in Latin America. I couldn’t help feel very envious indeed…though not of their method of doing it, tents and all. Skagway, for the record, was a circus second only to Las Vegas. Only in the U.S. can they make something out of nothing in such grand fashion, with masses of people from cruise ships going on a mass consumption spree in the countless ‘period’ shops which are just hastily put up wooden constructions. To make it all more ‘authentic’, you have horse-drawn carriages plus old trains as well. After an hour of this, quiet Whitehorse was a welcome antidote.
The Great Iwakuni (Japan) - 2005
Day 4 - December 19.
This was 'tour day' in Kyoto. It is strange how many people there are who are willing and able to take a tour of Kyoto in the middle of winter. There must have been around 25 of us who filled the bus, most of us Westerners really, couples, people with children. After this tour I have concluded that I will never take one again, ever ever. They are overpriced and you just end up getting on and off buses without getting much out of it. At any rate, we were bused around from one temple to the other on that day, and by the end of it I didnt want to see another temple as long as I live. Surely there is more to Japan than this.
The highlight of the day was the Golden Pavilion, which is to Japan what the Taj is to India, the makings of a postcard, a pavillion in a small lake. We were lucky enough to get a view of it within the snow, which was ever so lovely, a perfect picture of nature in its greens and reds overshadowed by the white.
The imperial palace was quite disappointing. It seems the Japanese prove their power (or did, back then) by understating, and the structures are not impressive in the sense of majestic or grand. Rather simple wooden buildings which were prone to often burn down, with large quarters and open spaces proving the power of the ones within. It is the gardens that surround these that are the most beautiful, though not on a day when you need to wiggle your toes to deal with the heat.
In the afternoon the tour continues to Nara, the capital in the 8th century before it moved to Kyoto. This is the site of a big Buddhist temple where deer loaf around freely which are a favourite with the kids who feed them, pat them and generally go crazy. By this time I have had enough of temples and am looking for a distraction. Which I find. The Japanese have a custom of placing a lucky wooden thing, it looks rectangular almost, at a place outside the temple for good luck. And one of those, lo and behold, is in Greek. Just 5 days before, it seems, a lady called Katerina happened to be in Nara and wishes us all a happy life with much joy and health in the years to come. Presumably she wrote it not imagining that someone would be reading it 5 days later, understanding the message and appreciating it immensely. Why cant people give such wishes on a daily basis back home? Does she have to come to Nara to make out her plaque outside the temple?
I am still jetlagged and fighting to stay awake. I wake up at 4 this morning, a slight improvement I think. Today the great adventure of the bullet train is due.
Day 5 - December 20
Indeed, I buy my ticket without much trouble. Everything is done so that the minimum of conversation is needed. The word for bullet train in Japanese is 'Shinkansen' so all you need to say is Shinkansen - Hiroshima. And there you go, service with a smile. It is a hefty 70 euros for a mere hour and a half. But wait a minute. This hour and a half disguises the fact that Hiroshima is almost 400 kilometres away. At such speeds, Athens to Thessaloniki would be 2 hours instead of the current five and a half. Need I say more?
The train is 5 minutes late. This is clearly not Switzerland. But it is not full and despite the fact that I save some pennies by getting a seat without a reservation, I get a seat without a hassle. One does not feel the speed of the train. My Serbian vocabulary keeps me company amidst daydreaming, and soon enough we pass mountains and small towns that all look quite alike, and then, almost exactly at noon, we are in Hiroshima.
I have searched the net and more or less found where my hotel is. I dont have a guide to the town, but apparently this place sports trams. Which is a good beginning, trams have always been my favourite. So there I am, riding tram number one to an unknown direction really, vaguely guessing the location of the hotel.
Nobody has prepared be for the surprise of Hiroshima. This town is just lovely. It is the Amsterdam of Japan, with canals everywhere and quaint little bridges crossing them. The centre is typical Japanese with the big buildings, but then take a small lane to the right or left and before long you will meet another canal. The weather is terrifically sunny, and even though I get off at the wrong stop and am completely confused with my heavy rucksack full of airplane magazines, somehow with the help of a young Japanese school student who knows the words for right and left in English, I am guided to my hotel a few paces away. Given I had only looked at the map on the net for a few seconds, I am pleased with myself.
The hotel was chosen because it is located just opposite the peace memorial. This is a huge park in general and the memorial is simple and sombre, and, 4 days before Christmas, I am the only visitor - this is not a Xmasy site at all. Inside the underground structure, one walks in a circular fashion down a circular path punctuated by small plaques giving a laconic account of what happened on August 6, 1945. Then one reaches the memorial which is very simple and silent, aimed at evoking a contemplative attitude. I guess 140.000 dead in one go is a pretty large amount of people indeed. Even the tsunami didnt do that, did it?
At any rate once you leave this part, there is an electronic database and you can search the names of all the dead, alphabetically ordered with a photo and a description of their name. I decide to search those with a surname alphabetically closest to mine. And it appears that there is a whole spate of Mitsuda's who perished, including a 20-year old worker, an elderly lady, and many more, whose photographs are their claim to fame in a not-so-happy moment in history.
The park also has further attractions for the visitor, including the remains of the Atomic Dome as it is called, almost directly under the epicentre, which has been kept as it was after the bomb hit it. I guess ruins have always appealed to me. There is also a flame, a monument for the children with the signs 'peace' and a clock commemorating the dead.
This is the main site and I have already done it by 2.30. What next? I walk through the centre and a hill in the distance catches my fancy as there is a silver looking pagoda on it. Can I get there? Maybe so. In fact I am really tireless. It takes me about an hour to walk past the station and to the hill and then it is a heavy climb up quite some steps to reach the summit. I dont find the pagoda, but from the top here, where there is a small temple, I get a panoramic view of Hiroshima, with the sea in the distance. Click. Ideal photo opportunity.
I crash in the room after dark, entirely defeated by fatigue. Only to wake up at 9, go for a walk to get night pictures of the atomic dome, and then struggle with the lack of sleep for most of the first hours of the morning. I have a plan for tomorrow. The plan is called MIyajima.
Day 6 - December 21.
I had never heard of Miyajima. Neither have you. But the brochure advertising the Kyoto tours also mentioned this, one of the 3 most beautiful spots in Japan, as one of its tours. Pity not to do it when it is so close to Hiroshima. And it is another bright day. Miyajima is an island just a 10-minute ferry ride from the end of the tram line, which is about 50 minutes from the centre of town. This in itself is an adventure, a chance to see the expanse of Hiroshima, which is very liveable, very civilised, much like the impression I get of the whole of Japan. I never expected I would make it on a small ferry here and get off on the island, which must be a great attraction in the summer, but now, in the middle of winter, is much like Mykonos would be in December. Shops closed and an air of serenity, far from anything terrestrial. Miyajima is renowned here for a shrine, with a Greek P-like structure actually coming out of the water and visible from quite afar, making another perfect postcard opportunity. The island is inhabited, it is not only the shrine, and is also populated by deer, who meet you as you get off the pier and happily accompany you as you go off to photograph the five-storey pagoda and the tiny little roads of village life in Japan.
There are also parks here, making it an eco-tourism paradise. What possesses me to go mountain-climbing on a day like this is beyond me. But I do. I take the cable-car up to the top of a hill, from where it is about a kilometre to the top of the mountain of the island. I here voices from afar on my lonely trail. It is a huge group of young boyscouts, who greet me individually as our paths cross, a smile on their youthful faces making the whole experience a pure thrill. At the peak there is the usual temple and more deer, and from here one gets a panoramic view of Hiroshima in the distance and also Shikoku island lying to the south.
It is a 2.5 kilometre trail downhill to the village. Thinking about it now, this was madness, all alone on a path which is slippery due to the icy snow, and then also under canopies of trees and wildlife running all over which could have overpowered me if they so desired. But hell, I will do it. A little exercise on Miyajima never hurt anybody. And sure enough I do, and make it down to safety to meet the boyscouts eating lunch and greeting me again with their smiles.
Why go back to Hiroshima when there is more that can be done? The brochure to Miyajima also advertises a place called Iwakuni, about 20 minutes further away once one crosses back to the mainland. Apparently there is an impressive bridge in Iwakuni. So, my dear Katerina who made it to Nara, did you do Iwakuni as well? I dont think so. The ticket person at the station is most helpful and rather surprised to hear Iwakuni instead of Hiroshima. Indeed I am the only westerner in this small town, which, nevertheless, has its department stores and its buses and its Mister Donut outlet just like anywhere else.
In order to orient oneself one merely needs to take a look at the maps outside the railway station. There are bits in English, which require considerable intelligence to be deciphered, but somehow I gathered that walking to the famous bridge was out of the question as it was about 5 kms away. But thats what the bus is for.
So here is Harry on the bus at Iwakuni. How crazy can it get? It takes me past streets and houses I was probably never meant to see until finally the glorious bridge bestows its glory onto me as well. An old grandma taps my back. She hands me my woolen cap which I inadvertedly dropped on the bus. How kind of her. And on the whole, I dont have a bad word to say about any of the Japanese I came across. Always smiling and polite and willing to help despite the extreme cultural and linguistic gap.
By the way, Iwakuni is a surprise. There is more than just the bridge. On the other side there is a whole complex of temples and canals leading to a ropeway that takes you up the hill to a pagoda. When it works, that is. On December 21 as the weather changes and it starts raining, there cannot be many takers, so it is shut.
I have made it to my favourite of places. The kind of forgotten backwater I like best. Long live Iwakuni. I vow to return to it when the ropeway works and conquer that pagoda at the top of the hill. Maybe the grandma who gave me my cap will no longer be alive, but I will honour her in visiting her town again.
The irony of all this detour was that I never saw Hiroshima Castle, which is the landmark of the town. Oh well, some other time. Back to sleep in the darkness with an even chillier air signalling a snowstorm. Tomorrow I will be conquering my last industrialised country left. The Republic of Korea.
Freetown to Monrovia
Friday morning at 6.45 my driver was in front of that hellish cheapo guesthouse that I was more than glad to see the last of. I only have myself to blame for being so stingy. It is in the Land Rover that I appreciated the general silence of the Sierra Leone people. Had I had someone who was yapping away endlessly throughout this tough drive, I would have gone round the bend. Luckily my middle aged driver was courteous but laconic, and after the introductions we were off. Freetown was waking up and already had traffic jams, and the usual 'God greets Allah' minbuses chock-full with people rearing for another day at the market. We passed the east end of the town, which, as in London, is the toughest bit. Here, small alley ways with wooden houses apparently constructed by the Krios (the traditional upper class of locals, who were hated by everyone else), were clearly not geared for the 21st century or capitalism. The place was a mess and it was with joy that I saw the last of Freetown as we headed north-east. The road was in good condition at first, and in the places where it wasn't, workmen were measuring distances and placing new tar, indicating that someone is at least doing something to improve. We drove three hours and, after a place called Mile 91, stopped for the driver's obligatory break.
It is in this nondescript village that I had one of those profound experiences I will not forget. Poignant and simple really. A little boy of maybe 8 years old was walking around this dusty village clad in only a long T-shirt (and maybe underwear) with a straw container of nuts on his head. He approached me and I couldn't really refuse this offer, though any attempt to ascertain the price of the goods was in vain. I gave him a 500 note i.e about 0.12 euros. And he took his straw container, placed it on the sand by the gravel road, squated to his ground and took a flimsy tin jar from within the container, which must have once upon a time itself had nuts maybe. And he started filling it with nuts, but he didn't want to be stingy, so he packed this tin can to the top and then put more and put of the produce until it started tumbling down. And then seemingly out of nowhere, he opened a small black plastic bag, still squatting, placed all the nuts from the tin inside it, made a knot and gave it to me. Throughout this he didn't smile. He had a kind of eerily blank expression. Scarily so. I was so touched by this. I walked about the village as my driver was eating rice with meat at the pit stop restaurant (dont imagine McDonalds here, Lord no...). When we were back in the car and the engine running, the boy appeared again and made a sound to draw my attention, as I was still quite out of it. I turned and he stared at me as if to say goodbye, or maybe 'thanks, you made my day'. I should have given him a whole euro damn it. I was so upset after this episode. It just seemed so unnecessarily tragic, in a hellish little village in Sierra Leone.
An hour away is the town of Bo (no relation to the upscale club/restaurant by the sea in Athens of the same name). This is the beginning of diamond country. If you have seen Blood Diamond, I suppose this is where it was supposed to be. Bo is full of (lebanese) diamond merchants and seems busy and upbeat, with some nice wooden houses again. Seeing anything resembling a house in Africa is good news, believe me!
After Bo things turned to the worse. The road progressively 'disintegrated' until we were on a tiny little dirt-road in the middle of the forest, which echoed 'The Blair Witch Project' more than anything I had ever seen before. We passed villages belonging to the stone age with nothing but straw huts or small concrete creations with no rooms. This part of the trip seemed endless. The Land Rover was excellent and so was the driver, who I felt terribly sorry for, having to return to Freetown after all this. Mind you, given the amount I had paid, I should not have felt sorry. Eventually we passed a village called Potoru and then came to a river where a barge would take us across. The short wait gave me the chance to befriend all the village folk who were the most eager participants in photo-taking. The girls all posed conquetishly and the teenage boys pretending to be real hunks. I think these must be cultural universals. Even a granny was happy to be in the group picture. They reminded me it was Christmas and I should make a small contribution and I gave the oldest 5000 (1.20 euro) to distribute fairly to all. The whole group burst in applause and endless thanks and was patting me and kissing me as a village benefactor. You see, it only takes 1.20 to make people happy...
The barge was interesting in that it was not operated by fuel (no way) but like a cable while 5 men pulled the barge slowly in the opposite direction so that the wheel slid down this cable. Quite unusual. We were the only vehicle on the barge (the only one that could fit anyway) along with 2 motor bikes. This, already quite near the Liberian border, is where I told myself 'hell Harry, now you really are in the middle of nowhere.' And yet, believe it or not, my mobile phone was still operational.
At the final 'major' centre called Zimmi I was stamped out of the country and then endless controls began, with my name written in huge books by bewildered officials who could not figure out which was the first name and which the surname, let along the Greek script and all. It was unnecessarily tedious as there were at least 4 such checks to the border, and here officials did ask for a 'contribution' which sometimes I gave ($1) or sometimes protested against by saying I am from a poor country (a poor argument though, you can't get much poorer than Sierra Leone). At any rate, thanks to a fantastic driver, we managed to get to the border in by 4 pm, despite roads which were occasionally in a state unbelievable to man. Even the Dukes of Hazzard would find these places a handful.
In Zimmi, by the way, I changed by useless Leones into Liberian Dollars, which again come in tiny denominations, or at least that's what the old man doing the currency exchange had. I ended up with a black plastic bag (like the one of the nuts) with $4000 liberian (i.e. about 50 euros) mostly in denominations of 5s. So you can figure out on your own how many banknotes there were in this bag.
The border town of Jandemah is where I would have had to spend the night had I not go in so early. One look at the place and I knew someone from above was protecting me and urging me to get to Monrovia in Liberia fast. Exiting Sierra Leone involved again a number of checks and at the final checkpoint I had a whole debate with about 7 officials on why I should not give them a Xmas contribution. We actually laughed about it all and said bad things about Americans, which is basically one thing you can be sure to agree on with just about anybody no matter where they are from. And then, after the check of my yellow-fever cerificate, no man's land...I should have enjoyed this more, but I wanted to get into Liberia and on as quickly as possible before sunset. The border is a bridge across a river, and at the other end of the river you are greeted by...Pakistanis.
Indeed. Liberia is under the care of the UN. In the next two days I would feel I was in a more international environment than my college at Oxford, with people of literally all shapes and sizes on the roads of the country. The border at Bo (Waterside) as it is called is under the care of a Pakistani batallion. I can tell you, strange as it may seem, after all these trials and tribulations in Africa, it is quite conforting being greeted by pakistanis. Somehow they are more familiar.
The border people in Liberia (they are Liberians) were exceptionally courteous and smiling. No requests for bribes of Christmas contributions here. They set the tone for what I was about to discover throughout: this nation is the friendliest and easiest going in Africa. Considering the place is a shambles, this is truly curious. It took a mere 15 minutes of formalities here, no hassle really, and then the true adventure began.
There was no land rover luxury at this end. The good news is that the road to Monrovia here is fully tarred, and the distance is only about 120 kms i.e. 2 hours left, even though it was by now obvious that I would not make it in before dark, a scary thought really. The 'interesting' news. Shared taxis are really shared here. The taxi took 10 people. 9 and the driver. 6 were in the back (4 adults and 2 children) and 2 of us in front to start with, then on the way another chap joined us. Meanwhile I gave my rucksack unwillingly (after taking out by little Naf-Naf container with passports and money and holding onto it for dear life) and along with thousands of plastic bags of my fellow travellers, my rucksack was placed in the open boot which was then tied together with string. We were actually quite a luxury ride - in other taxis men were holding off the full boot with legs in mid-air, quite literally.
Nevertheless, it was clear the driver knew every inch of the road, slowing down before curves which then had bumps or bad road, and as the sunset progressed, we quickly made it closer to Monrovia. Twice I was the reason to delay the group as my details had to be diligently taken down in another array of books by another group of bewildered officials, who remained exceptionally polite and did not ask for any bribe at all.
We made it into Monrovia by dark and I was quite terrified. Not only did I not really know where I was going, but how would I get there from where the taxi left us. Luckily (luck seems to follow me when i need it) I must have met the first honest taxi driver in the history of taxi drivers. I told him by problem and he said (in English I could not really understand) that he will find me a taxi driver to take me where I want to go, that I should lock the door and he will make sure I am ok until I get into the next taxi. Phew. I risk it by deciding to go to Hotel Royal, slightly out of town but my guide said it had two restaurants so it couldn't be all bad. The new taxi driver finally took me through what seemed like an endless ride, and this time I had the front all to myself, while the back seat invariably got filled up with countless passengers - it seems there is no concept of private taxi in Liberia.
I got to hotel Royal looking like a character out of a horror film. I hadn't shaved in 5 days (and my beard is all white when it grows), I had hardly slept for 48 hours and had been washing for those with a bucket under little light. I entered the hotel and exasperatedly just said 'please tell me you have a free room'. Guess what? It was my lucky day. But I knew it would be - it was my favourite actress Lee Remick's birthday (it would have been were she still alive). The (Lebanese) guy who appeared from behind the reception seemed particularly understanding when I said I had just driven from Freetown. This is not the easiest ride in the world...
The day did not quite end here. I had not eaten practically anything throughout. In Bo I quickly went into a supermarket and got a few chips and biscuits (from Malaysia believe it or not) but i was famished. The handsome Lebanese guy informed me that indeed they had two restaurants, one of which was a sushi bar. Sushi bar? In Monrovia??? Yes! There is a God after all...and so after going to a decent room, showering with glee and shaving my white beard, all of which were so far the happiest moments of 2007, I came down and pushed the door of the sushi bar.
And entered another world. You are no longer in Africa. A Japanese waitress welcomes you into a space with a red decor in general, tables right and left and in the centre the bar area, in the centre of which two Japanese chefs who look like sumo-wrestlers and have red scarves in Japanese style tied around their heads are chopping the sushi and preparing delights. For a moment I thought I was having an out-of-body experience. Have I died and gone into sushi-bar heaven? The people seated at the tables were anything but African - Euroasian, European, American, Latin American. I took my seat at a stool in the bar and got a piece of paper with a list of goodies which I was meant to tick as my order. I HAVE died and gone to heaven...
The sushi was really good and cheap too. I would have stayed longer but needed a good night's sleep. The room was so nice that I didn't smear my usual anti-mosquito spray and slept without wearing my usual long sleeve shirt for mosquito protection. Fuck it, I thought. All the expats here seem quite relaxed...and I gave myself up after a day which has taken me 45 minutes to write about...
Entering Pakistan...(written in 2005)
Day 1/2, March 1/2 : As with most trips, this one begins with the door closing, me taking a deep breath that I will make it back in one piece, going down to the garage and driving my car for the short hop to the nearest bus stop, where I park it and then duly wait for bus X96 to take me to the airport. I may well be spending fortunes on yet another nutty adventure, but there is no way my personal philosophy allows me to make a rude Athenian taxi driver even a cent richer.
From the very beginning, it is obvious that this trip will be topsy-turvy. Usually when flying Olympic Airlines, it takes half a second to check in; no wonder they are always on the brink of bankruptcy with the passenger load factor they muster. But this time, Cyprus Airways has cancelled two of its flights to Larnaca, and partner Olympic is checking-in all of the would-be stranded passengers for its own flight, leaving slightly before mine. The conclusion is that it takes me, flying to Dubai , a whole hour to check in at Athens airport. I think that's a record.
Frustrated yet excited with what is to come, I make it for what will be my 73rd departure from Eleftherios Venizelos airport since it opened a mere 4 years ago. Not a bad statistic really, is it? I look forward to a long, unsurprising flight to Dubai , with a stopover in Kuwait , which means 6 hours of flying time; so I have equipped myself with the CKM magazines I get from Serbia and the aim is to, once more, review endless lists of Serbian vocabulary and enrich the lists with even more.
In Kuwait a desperate looking woman in front of me, who clearly had no English at all, gesticulated away trying to understand what was going on; she looked completely lost, as if she didn't know if this is where she wants to get off or not. Eventually, I realized that she muttered a word in Serbian. So those newly-acquired vocabulary lists were not in vain at all. The mid-50s woman with dyed blonde hair, the kind who could have been one of the typical Eastern European women selling bus tickets (they are the same from Budapest to Vladivostok), finally looked relieved as a Serbian-speaker came to the rescue. She was flying to Dubai to her sister, who had recently moved there with her husband who was a baseball trainer. Poor woman, completely lost. She explained to me that she was invalid and could hardly walk, but in her transit in Athens the wheelchair had not arrived and she had a hell of a time communicating her predicament to the staff. She was worried what would happen when we arrived in Dubai . Her good fortune was having me behind her, so for her, the remainder of the flight was carefree, as she knew she was in my good multi-lingual hands should the treasured wheelchair fail to make it in Arabia as it did in Greece . I, on the other hand, was a bit more concerned. Dubai would be the last stop in civilization, and then would come considerable distress in strange lands. Or so I imagined.
We arrived on time in the dead of night, 3.50 Dubai time. The glimmering lights of the impressive big terminal were the beginning of the Serbian woman's trail of amazement. Her wheelchair did arrive and the last glimpse I had of her was her looking completely awestuck at the sight of Dubai airport's interior. This would be like, compared to Belgrade airport, like comparing Monaco and Bangladesh (sorry Serbian folks, the truth has to be said).
I checked in for my flight to Karachi . It had been 9 years since I last flew Emirates airlines, dismissing it after a horrible return from Hanoi to Athens back in 1996 as a horrid, amateurish airline. This shows how consistent and unforgiving I am when something disappoints. Despite all its awards, I resisted any flights until this one; and this one was a really well-priced business class ticket, which would allow me 4 hours of peace and rest in the business class lounge. Now an adventurer I am me, but nobody who knows me well can possibly imagine me trailing the Andes or enduring any sort of hardships, quite the contrary. Yes to the bus and no to the taxi, but also yet to the impressive business lounge and no to the world around it, where seemingly thousands of Indians who had all taken their shoes off were trying to fall into a semi-comatose sleep while waiting for their connecting flight. Admittedly, Dubai airport is the most multicultural experience one can muster, where all races seem to mingle in approximately fair measure. Colourful African women clad in red robes to die-hard Moslems with their long bears to roasted-looking Europeans back from their holidays. All in a setting as artificial as you can imagine. That's what Dubai has to give, and this is the airport I would hopefully make it back to 4 days later.
The business class lounge did not disappoint, I threw my diet out of the toilet in search of all sorts of free gourmet delights (well, they are not free, but anyway), and waited for the short-hop to Karachi, a mere hour and a half away and yet not exactly the same multicultural hub as Dubai. The flight staff were even more multicultural than the passengers at the airport. The hostess serving me was Japanese, and there was a lovely Slovak girl on board as well; I know cause they mention all the languages spoken on the plane by staff. No Greek or Serbian though, not that there would be much need; the number of westerns on this flight was minimal. Obviously the warnings of kidnapping fear and bomb explosions have kept everybody away.
And this was never more painfully obvious than when the plane finally made its flight above massive Karachi (which looked like one big hell-hole even from above) and landed in an airport which has obviously seen better days. Clearly intended to be a hub and to serve a considerable number of business and tourist passengers, this airport is now relegated to a ghost building, where the only arriving flight was ours with the exception of one Pakistan Air Lines plane, and where the board indicated there are a mere 15 more international flights for the rest of the day. Sad this, to feel the decline from the airport itself. At least there were no armed guards on the tarmac to 'welcome' the plane, as there were in Kabul, though there was quite a number at the gate once impressive 777-300 made its stop.
As a business class passenger, passport control could have not been simpler and quicker. I immediately found myself out of the control area and instantly experienced Pakistani hospitality with a smile when the cleaner at the toilet offered me paper to clean my hands; there was a big sign 'no tips' so he clearly just did it out of hospitality.
Now it's time for yet another flight. No, I will not visit Karachi , it's time for my domestic hop with AeroAsia - a local airline I discovered on the net and thought it exotic to try flying them. I get out of the international arrivals and take the escalator up to the departures level. There is only one thing I see in front of me, beyond the airport. Only one - a big McDonalds. I am shocked and disappointed at this and delighted that neighbours Afghanistan and Iran are Ronald McDonald-free zones.
AeroAsia does it again. My flight to Islamabad has been cancelled. Now I face a 4 to 5 hour wait until the next flight, and I am already rather tired after a completely sleepless night. What are my options? Take a taxi-trip to Karachi , a place which is known to be dangerous and with no sights anyway? Or try to get the plane to Lahore , leaving in 25 minutes and then see what happens? Although I have an already-paid for hotel reservation in Islamabad, my thought processes tell me that a wait in the airport terminal is a no-no and, as long as my parents are alive, I have to avoid things like taxi-trips in towns like Karachi. So I suggest the Lahore flight and am again impressed by Pakistani hospitality and courteousness. What would have been 'impossible' and 'not done' anywhere else, is easily done by the helpful and apologetic Aero Asia staff and within no time I am whisked away to the DC-9 aircraft which looks pretty well-worn but still graces the skies. This is also a business class ticket, at a mere $70. Not exactly a fortune.
The business class section on the plane, which only sports 6 seats, is full. And I quickly meet the group there. The guy sitting next to me is a friendly Pakistani doctor who lives in Manchester and is married to an Irish-German girl. They have come along with the girl's German mother and two friends of the mother, to look around Pakistan. So for the flight, which also lasts one and a half hour, I find myself chatting away, first to the really nice doctor, who has been to Greece numerous times and has friends in Athens , then to the plump German mother, who could be out of the Munich Beer Festival. So there, I am not the only foreign tourist in Pakistan , though admittedly there doesnt seem to be much of a boom in the industry at present. The service on AeroAsia business class is perfect, and the air hostess is one of the most beautiful creatures I have ever set eyes on; she should be a model, with those almost transparent hazel eyes and a complexion that makes her exotic, but not necessarily Pakistani. The plane, by the way, is an ex-Finnair aircraft. This is given away by the inscription 'Huovat-Blankets'. Quite a career this at least 30 years old plane must have had.
And so finally, after a total of 15 hours of flying, not where I should be, but in Lahore , which I shouldn't be arriving in until Friday. I quickly check if there are any flights to Islamabad but the next one is late in the evening. So that's it then; it is not fated that I see the capital of the country or that I set foot at the Holiday Inn there, as booked, but instead I will make Lahore my home for the next 4 days and get to know the place well. My Lonely Planet guide says it is the safest place in the country, a really good way to get to know the culture with no risk, so I decide that this may not be such a terrible idea after all.
There is an irking problem. Where do I go now? The airport is big and modern, but every hotel desk claims that the hotels are fully booked. Clearly not by the non-existent tourists, so who could be paying good money to stay in American-owned hotels? Oh well, if it weren't for my parents I would do what I am going to risk doing now - go for the budget option for the next 2 days. Given the change of plans, no more outlays of cash should be made.
There is a taxi service stand and I asked them to suggest a hotel near the centre which is appropriate and take me there. My travel guide claims this taxi service is reliable. And, true enough, a small-framed but business-looking driver is quickly produced and off we are in Lahore , my first real sights of Pakistan (aside from the typically local McDonalds) unfolding in front of my eyes. There is predictable chaos in the roads, the buildings are also predictably dodgy and the air, geez, the air smells something terrible. Had I not been experienced with pollution from Athens , this would be a new dimension in fumes. As it is, we are caught in a traffic jam along with a host of colourful rickshaws which have an easier time zooming past us than we do past them. Mental note : forget taxis while here and resort to the rickshaw, which is clearly more fun anyway. We pass a canal with impressive, colourful decoration; puppets of birds and other non-descript ornaments; in fact everything seems colourful around here, including the many people walking in the streets, who seem to be every gradation from almost white to really dark. Lahore is and always has been a commercial centre, a place on the cross-roads, a mere 29 kms from India - and so a place which many migrants from all over have made their home.
I make it to the budget option. Just as well my mother doesn't know I am here. The room is ok, though plastering is off the walls and there is no toilet paper in the bathroom. But there is a huge television. I accept the price and decide to grin and bear it here for the next 2 days as a clearly inferior alternative to the Holiday Inn at Islamabad . How much time will I be spending at the hotel anyway? I change and then make for the streets. I have decided to pull my Kabul act here too - walk about in a carefree way and hope for the best.
For the next 3 hrs, I am out and about but realize that the hotel is miles away from anywhere near the centre. Have I been conned? It isn't even in my guide. Maybe this was not such a good idea after all. Anyway I successfully complete my first transaction in Pakistan by buying a mobile phone number and a card/ I have to let my friend Michael know that I changed my plans, as he is officially the 'itinerary keeper' and should know where I am. Now it hits me why I wanted to change my plans on the spur of the moment. Because I didn't want to make plans in the first place! Plans and Aquarians don't really go together. Wouldn't it be better to be free like a bird, roam around with an unfixed itinerary, go around at will and never mind if anybody knows where I am? Much better!
My walk takes me through main roads with no sites at all - just heaps of rubbish, loads of donkeys eating hay while resting or pulling carts with produce ranging from hay to sticks on them, people (mostly men) dressed in long white or pale blue robes who stare at me intently, but don't hassle me at all. In the whole duration of the peregrination in the non-central areas of Lahore the only person to acknowledge me is a Pakistani transvestite! Only I in my mad adventures could actually come face to face with a transvestite on the road within an hour of arriving, and not only that, but he/she, with plenty of make-up and looking almost white, starts looking, smiling, gesticulating and then going off in Urdu, Lord knows what she is saying, I'd rather not figure it out at all! I pass her as I enter the area of Gulberg, which is apparently one of the up-market places, and clearly there is a slightly (note : very slightly) more Western feel to the place with more elegant shops. Don't think that the number of bicycles, scooters, horns and shouts diminishes though, quite the contrary in fact as there seems to be morer wheeling and dealing here than in the areas I saw before.
I enter the pace department store where my guide says there is an internet cafe. Final proof that I am dependent on this awful tool even in a place so far from home. After my session there, at a cost of 0.50 an hour (this is paradise), I try my rick-shaw luck - yes, for the same price, I will be taken back to my hotel, a considerable distance I realize now. The 'hotel' looks even creepier now as the day is giving way to the night, and I see a woman and a man leaving the premises. Is this a hotel for 'couples'? Shit. I must get out of here. My paranoia is further escalated when I read in my guide that some hotel scams involve planting drugs in travellers things and then 'police' demand a 'present' in order to drop the charges. However I am now too tired to deal with any of this and fall into a deep slumber until about . Waking up, I use the one facility the place does have (not toilet paper I remind you) to watch a crappy US film about a girl who staged her own kidnapping to swindle her parents out of money. That's one idea I never thought of! At this hour of the night someone is hoovering outside my room. This place is becoming increasingly suspicious. What kind of normal establishment does hoovering past ? Let alone establishment, what person gets his kicks with the vacuum-cleaner in the dead of night? I'm out of here in the morning.
Day 3, March 3
Sleep has taken me over for longer than expected, and it is already 9.30 as I wake up in the windowless room and quickly decide to escape this vile place once and for all. I pay up the bill and seek a rickshaw to take me anywhere decent. He does not understand Pearl Continental Hotel. One thing about rickshaws is the difficulty of communicating where you want to go; even international names sound different in Urdu. Pace Shopping Centre, for example, becomes something like Piss Shopping. Quite a different market segment, I dare say, probably a more interesting one, the Piss Market, but quite a few years away from a country where you won't even be served alcohol in a five star hotel unless you produce a copy of your passport proving you are not a Moslem... The colourful rickshaws are a delight though; they have nice little designs drawn on the back : usual motifs are the sea with a gondola, or birds of various colours, or perhaps the Pakistan flag glorified. I even saw one with the twin towers burning (will not comment on that this time round!). They are cheap and efficient, though on one occasion mishaps do happen; I saw one which had a heavy load of 'cargo' and had attempted to bite off more than it could chew by climbing through a 'secret policeman' - at that point the cargo obviously shifted and the three-wheel vehicle fell back on its two wheels, with the driver and the front wheel suspended in the air. It was quite hilarious seeing a crowd gather trying to push from the bad so that the rickshaw lands on the ground again, while the driver was quite helpless up there facing the sky...
My morning rickshaw driver did understand 'Holiday' (perhaps from the Madonna song? probably not...) as in 'Holiday Inn' and so off I was to a more central part of Lahore. Arriving inside the luxurious hotel, this was obviously a different world indeed, up to international standard, far from the fumes and the honks of the street. They once again asserted they had no availability, but as a Priority Club Member, they could offer me the deluxe suite on the executive floor for a seriously discounted rate, which would 'only' amount to 300 euros (hope my dad survives the heart attack). As I had already done everything contrary on this trip already, I accepted this deal for a night, comforted by the fact that I would at least get loads of bonus points for this! The room on the executive floor had a 'sitting room' area, though it was not the most luxurious room my eyes seen; still, there was also a lounge for my use, replete with free internet access, so this would serve its purpose for me to eventually type up my impressions of the place.
There were newspapers laid out in the room and I looked through them. The British have clearly left their mark on Pakistan. Not only is driving on the wrong side of the road, not only is there Walls ice-cream and Cadbury's chocolates available, but newspapers sport names like 'The Daily Times'. A common theme in the papers is of course, India. I couldn't help on thinking that Pakistan has been dealt a rather sad lot. What do you think of when India comes to mind? Maybe squalor and poverty, but also spicy food, maharajas, Goa, software expertise, bright bespectacled young professionals, Gandhi??? What do you think of when Pakistan comes to mind? Probably just squalor and poverty, right? No wonder they seem to have a chip on their shoulder for that, and always try to present themselves in the papers as the aggravated party which has been done in...
I eventually decided it was time to venture outside into the real Lahore. Walking past the hotel, one of the first sites is the Punjab National Congress building, built in colonial style, clearly by the British. Just ahead of that is Charing Cross. Yes, Charing Cross, but here you will not find Foyles and Blackwell's bookshops or Cafe Rouge round the corner. It is at Charing Cross that the statue of Queen Victoria once graced Lahore. A pretty lass, she must have been, if they wanted to have her in sight so many miles away from London. Charing Cross is perhaps the main starting point of The Mall, which could be classified as the centre of Lahore, and here one finds many small shops selling everything from batteries to books to clothes. The honks, the rickshaws and the horses all mesh with the cars to form a bizarre concoction of sounds and sights.
I wanted to find the Tourist Office as I knew that they have half-day tours which were dirt cheap at 8 euros and would provide me a hassle-free view of the place. In searching for these, I came across a huge Catholic Church and abbey, built in familiar red brick, which was a bit of an oasis from the madding crowd outside... Continuing the search, and looking a little lost as I double-checked my map, I was approached for the first time by a man who asked me where I wanted to go, and then helped me out, but before long, he was giving me a lecture... The dark, old man with rotten teeth started off 'Pakistan is a poor country and he have $50 billion debt and it is all because of you'! And he pushed me with his hands in the middle of the street. It is an indication of just how cool and contained I can really be, that I looked at him straight in the eye and said in a calm voice 'But I am not American...I am Turkish'. I don't know where this came from, but for once I was to take advantage of my looks due to which I am often taken for Turkish in Istanbul, and after all my ancestors really were from the depths of Anatolia... The man almost went blue. He changed expression completely, as for him, he had just insulted a fellow Moslem... In what was quite an unexpected turn, he took my hand and kissed it. At this point I retained my cool, set goodbye and went off looking for the tourist office which I quickly found.
Yes there was a tour daily - it seemed like I would be the only customer, so it would be a private deal and I arranged to be picked up from the hotel, to which I returned to freshen up and eat something - I had not had a single thing to eat all day, and there was an appealing buffet in sight. In what is a great irony, the Holiday Inn Lahore's bulletin of the month focused on Greece. The cover showed a blue cupola of a church and the sea, with the lower part being a group dancing typical Greek dances. Inside was information on Greece 'country of the month', on the Holiday Inn's of Greece, and on a typical recipe. It's at times like these, far away from home, that one can smile and be proud of one's origins, despite the fact that there are numerous occasions when I would prefer to hide behind the table in embarassment for the things that Greece has done in the past...
The tour started off with a blue-eyes, elegant looking gentleman guide in his 40s introducing himself to me. It is clear that not all Pakistanis are dark - I had in fact seen some blue-eyed people in the street before him... We ventured through the traffic of Lahore straight to ShalimarGardens. Built by the same fellow who later made Taj Mahal, this oasis from the smell of the town proves how artificial the border with India really is. The whole garden in its entirety was like the entrance to the Taj, replete with the long fountain with water inside, though no Taj-like building was to be found. These gardens seemed like a favourite haunt for the local population, and there were many children with families lying around in the well-maintained grass. In fact it is surprising how green these gardens can be given the hot climate of the place... then again in July the rains come and I imagine the place becomes a complete hell-hole, as there doesn't seem to be any appropriate draining system in the street...
From the Shalimar gardens, we went off to see a bit of the OldTown. This is, of course, the highlight of the whole place, and I would return the next day for more, tirelessly exploring every nook and cranny of the place. Once again, nowhere would I be hassled, and even more surprisingly perhaps, there was no begging or children coming up to me asking for money - none of that at all. Sometimes stares, more frequently a friendly smile, especially if I smiled first. The Old Town of Lahore has 12 gates and inside there is almost no traffic with the occasional exception of some bicycles or rickshaws. So it is easy to walk around on the dirt-road and look at the place, which is essentially one big market. Many people, I am told, sell below and sleep in their homes above the main shop. Don't imagine anything more than a few bricks slapped together hastily, because this is how the buildings are constructed, with the bare essentials. The old town is the place to buy food as well. Chickens seem particularly popular. They are kept all together, very much alive, on a huge dish-like surface from which they are kept tied with a net above their heads. They they shreek away, waiting for their meeting with the creator. On some occasions, next to them lie their already 'for-sale' counterparts, neatly slaughtered and de-feathered. I wonder what the alive chicks think of as they look at the lifeless bodies of their cousins right next to them...
In the old town, the animal kingdom comes much closer to humans. There may not be cars but there is an endless array of donkeys going around, and goats sometimes also parade there, frequently on a leash, presumably for sale, whether dead or alive I don't know (maybe there is a service 'slaughter' charge). However, these sites make one realise how much closer to nature we must have been a mere 50 years ago and how alienated from it we in the west have become in recent years. Is this for the better? I don't know...
My guide takes me to a beautifully tiled mosque near the Delhi Gate, from which we enter. It is slightly odd when he tells me to 'look around for a while' while he performs his prayer. So there I am, taking snapshots of the open area outside the mosque, while observing my elegant looking guide go on all fours, up and down and then raise his hands to the heavens in prayer. I am not the most secular of people, and for sure not ethno-centric, but somehow the sight perplexes me considerably...
Our next stop is the Food Street, known as Gawalmandi. This is where the locals come for an evening feast, and slowly the evening is falling and we can see the places preparing for the evening customers. This is the only truly pedestrian zone I have seen in Lahore so-far and there is an endless array of open-air stalls selling fruits, meat in the form of kebab-looking things and other delights from dough that look like small pies. The buildings on this tiny strip are better kept, some have been repainted and redone, and it is here that their colonial background is evidenced once again. Indeed, the British must have built quite a lot at this outpost, though the old town was clearly left untouched.
Our final stop on the tour is to a local handicraft store, but I am very pleasantly pleased when the guide himself says 'we are only taking you there to have a look, and by no means feel obliged to buy anything'. In fact just this statement is likely to make me buy! And I did get a small little thing for next to nothing. Pakistan is a shopper's paradise, as I would also discover later on in my stay...
I am tired and still jetlagged it seems - one night without sleep does one in. So I return to my hotel as darkness falls and decide not to venture out again, as it is I have done justice to this place so far and will have loads of time for more. But I don't say goodbye to my guide without booking another tour for tomorrow - one not to be missed under any circumstances....
Day 4 March 4
I leave the one 5-star hotel en route for the other one which has been booked for by my Greek travel-agent. Today is the day I would have anyway arrived in Lahore had I respected the original schedule. A rickshaw once again takes me to the Pearl Continental, which I have been told is the best hotel in Lahore. Arriving inside, I feel almost a sense of disgust. This is not only the best hotel in Lahore; it is perhaps the best I have ever seen (and believe me, you know that there are loads of hotels Harry has set foot in). The Pearl Continental is luxury 100%. Considering the rate here, I am getting a real bargain. What I like most is that the hotel is built so that there are no closed corridors; the place is like a courtyard so there is a huge open space in the middle of the square; from the 6th floor you look down at the impressive reception area. The rooms themselves are exquisite, the bed made of wood with 4 long sticks protruding up almost to the ceiling, giving an extra idea of splendour here. I am disgusted that this place should exist within a km or so of the main town where the general living conditions are the definition of degeneration. On the other hand, I will take this luxury without complaining. But will quickly change images once again with another visit to the old town, as I just cannot get enough of that place...
It is rather sad that when I think of all the people I know, with the exception of the people on the tour to North Korea, the only ones I can imagine who would be up for such an adventure into the old town without freaking out are my parents. And maybe my friend Sarah, she would be up for anything. I should note that it is only today that for the first time I see some westerns, and these were at the breakfast table at the Holiday Inn (Germans I think). Pity. So far I have only the best to say about Lahore and its people. Usually the impression I have of a country in the first 10 minutes of being there lasts to the end, and this is no exception - my stay in Pakistan has been more than pleasant since my landing there. Despite the considerable presence of the police everywhere and the metal detectors at the entrances of both the Holiday Inn and the Pearl Continental, nowhere have I felt danger.
Without really knowing exactly where I am going, I find the Lahore Fort, built sometime in the 16th century I presume. I take off my shoes as I enter an extremely impressive mosque first - this in a way does look like what one is faced with at Agra. As the mosque leads to the Fort through a courtyard, the consequence is that for the next hour I am walking barefoot and probably taking in all the dust of the world in Lahore's old fort. Nonchalantly I smile away, who cares about footwear here? After all many of the rickshaw drivers are barefoot. The Lahore Fort is a slight disappointment but it may be because I am not into antiquity of any sort - stones are stones after all, and these structures, whether at the ShalimarGardens or here, are mostly the same. So I don't really stay long here. On my way back to the mosque a diminutive old man with a long beard and no teeth starts a conversation with me and offers to take my picture with the mosque. I give him 10 rupees for his effort. He can't be more than 1.45 tall and he tells me he is 74 years old. 'So you are a wise man' I tell him. My father is only 4 years younger than him, but I dare say the fortunes of these two people could not have been more different.
After more walking about, it's time to go back to the hotel and after a slight rest, board the tour to the Wagha border. No self-respecting border freak would miss the show at the Pakistan-India border. In the 9 months before this visit, I have already experienced the two most bizarre borders I have ever seen : the one that divides Cyprus in two at Nicosia, essentially being the border between west and east; and of course the bizarre no-man's land in between North and South Korea, where the demarcation line runs in the middle of a hut. Surely the Pakistan-India situation cannot complete, right? Wrong.
For once I am not alone on the tour, in fact the min-bus is pull of Westerners, including 4 Brits and a few others. We make our way out of Lahore to the east, passing first an area called Cantonment which is obviously one of the classier places in town. Yet even here, while there may be a suburban atmosphere of some sort, there is no comparison to anything we know in the west. What is luxurious here is merely average for us, something I had also noted when being a guest of my good friend Arnab in Delhi.
The Wagha border is the only land border between the two rival countries. Every day since the demarcation of the border a thoroughly bizarre ceremony takes place here which involves crowds from both lands hissing and booing at each other to 'out-do' the other, while border officials (or are they not officials), obviously chosen for their height and strength, have a lengthy, choreographed ceremony which involved greeting each other 2 or 3 times, lots of opening and closing of the gates between the two countries and finally the lowering of both flags, times to happen a little before sunset.
We arrive to the border crossing and are split, men on the right, women on the left, and we take to stands which are on either side of the road linking the two states. My position cannot be more than 30 meters away from Indian territory, and on the other side, where there seems to be a larger area for crowds to gather, one can observe Indian flags being held with glee. On our side, further behind from us, there are elevated spectators' posts and a whole hoard (herd?) of Pakistanis are there. Music is playing long before the ceremony begins - their tune is simplistic, almost reminding me of songs from the smurfs, and their words almost non-existent; a prominent word which is repeated is, rather predictably, 'Pakistan, Pakistan'. At one point an ancient old man, sporting a long white beard and clad in green with the Pakistan flag on his overalls, also holding a huge flag, appears and starts cheering and yelling 'Pakistan', The crowds on our side of the border rejoice while the diminutive old man who looks like a miniature Bin-Laden is walking, then running, then almost dancing away almost all the way to the shut gates which separate the countries. Then a younger, more athletic looking chap does the same, but he seems to lack the charisma and the kudos of the old man who has successfully roused Pakistani nationalism. Then the 'show' begins. The Pakistani 'guards' are dressed in impressive black outfits with reddish belts around them and a huge black helmet that makes them look a bit like ancient Greek warriors. The Indian outfit is similar but khaki-coloured. The men, who must be about 2 meters tall, start one by one, running to the border, stamping their feet down with as much strength as possible. At one point one of the shouts - boy, can he shout...it must be something like a 'charge' signal.
The gates between the two countries are opened, and loads of choreography goes on, with more men from both countries approaching the border post, while the crowds on both sides are going nuts. Hindustan, Pakistan, Hindustan, Pakistan. This whole thing is absolute border insanity. Eventually, two men, one from each of the countries, shake hands, and then to the salute of horns (rather than national anthems), both flags are lowered, the gates finally closed for the day, and the ceremony is complete. The old man who was previously encouraging the crowds is clearly unsatisfied with the 'performance' of the Pakistani spectators who have not given all they could of themselves.
If you have not seen this bravura performance at the border, you have not lived. This beats all borders hands down, and I wonder to what extent the locals take it seriously - I mean, they couldn't possibly. Especially those long hats/helmets which reach to the sky are the epitome of kitsch. At the end of the 'show' we as tourists get preferential treatment and have pictures taken with a few of these guards, who tower over me considerably. A this point, as we have approached the gate even further, I am probably about 2 meters from Indian soil. What a thrill! I hereby vow this is a border I will cross one day, which means coming to Pakistan again... But I could have told you I would anyway, so far I am thoroughly charmed by this place and its friendly and unintrusive people...
The evening is spent zapping at the hotel. I am not much of an evening person on these trips, but will wake up early tomorrow for a relaxed day, in which I will do even more justice to Lahore. By spending 4 whole days here, it becomes, after Pyongyang, the place in Asia I will have spent most consecutive days at. But I don't think I could have regretted it one bit, perhaps it's better seeing one place well rather than wizzing between places at lightning speed.
A big thank you to all the well-wishers, whether friends or random acquaintances, who have been by me throughout.