Unusual People Who Made Remarkable Trips

Sitting and scrawling now, pen-on-paper, sweat-smudged and soggy my notebook as I crouch in a shady corner of the “tribal area,” a raised platform of mats and carpets on the roof of a backpacker flophouse in Lahore.

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“It is called the tribal area because there are no laws here,” explained Ciro, the Venezuelan development student who is traveling back to his home in Paris – by land (Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, then the Orient Express back home). Like most of the travelers here (en route to India, China, even a crazy Aussie going to Afghanistan), Ciro is in no rush, squatting, barefoot and bare-chested in the tribal area amid a small mountain of cigarette butts, used matches, flies (dead and buzzing), and dust.

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Like most of the travelers here (en route to India, China, Iran, even a crazy Aussie going to Afghanistan), Ciro is in no rush, squatting, barefoot and bare-chested in the tribal area amid a small mountain of cigarette butts, used matches, flies (dead and buzzing), and dust.

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It is hot in Lahore; not as hot as when we first landed in Islamabad three weeks ago, but close. The heat, the haze, wrapped like a Kashmiri shawl around our fellow travelers, makes for slow, lazy days. Makes sightseeing difficult; we have yet to venture into the Old Mughal City, visit forts, museums, mosques. . .

Instead, we search for inertia: must find internet, must deal with broken laptop, must research imminent border crossing into India, but above all, I must tell you SOMETHING about the last few days.

Good Gawd!

The stories are piling up faster than I can wrap my arms around them – let alone find the appropriate technology for sharing them (oh, if only I can beam to the pages of this blog directly from the chip in my head).

Please, friends, forgive the lack of depth, as any of the following nuggets could be expanded into 1,000-word entries, chapters, a book; but listen, here are a few things that have happened:

We discovered Dr. Stewart’s plant collection in Islamabad! Now the National Herbarium, the 50,000 specimens collected by Dr. Stewart over a period of 50 years are filed away in a droopy government building outside of town, cared for by Dr. Rubina Akhter since 1982. She shared with us her love and respect for Tay’s Great Grandfather, showed us his signature on yellowed pages and the very flowers that he collected, dating from 1920 – she gave us some of his writings (a voice for the man!). In 1963, Dr. Stewart wrote of his fellow botanists in the Himalayas: “Many of our collectors were unusual people who made remarkable trips into out of the way places when there was not much and order.”

Unusual and remarkable indeed! And a fine segue into the next nugget: a reflection on safety in Pakistan, so much to be said, so many changing feelings on my part, so different from those of my wife and other foreign women here, so many challenges. Such friendly, hospitable people, but in such a charged atmosphere, with hot-spots of violence around the country (the very next southbound Karakorum Natco bus that departed Aliabad after ours, was ambushed). We have not felt threatened, not once, only a bit shaken after hearing about the above incident. The U.S. State Department still advises against “non-essential travel,” although I don’t think our mission fits that bill. Our month in this country was absolutely essential, one we will never forget. For a more colorful (if slightly outdated) report on Pak safety, or lack thereof, check Robert Young Pelton’s Dangerous Places page.

The world — all of it — is a dangerous place, New York, London, Karachi, wherever. The world — all of it — is also our only world, and it is big, and explore it we must.

On to our anticipation of the next step. In the words of Kazu, our Japanese hotel-mate in Karimabad: “India – ah, very dirty!” We’ve heard so much about the chaos, the crowds, the filth, the public defecation, closed and unfriendly people, rumors, tales, who knows what to believe. There will also be no more veiled women, harsh stares, and worries about telling people what country we’re from.

Finally, my friends, there was Sufi Night, last night, here in Lahore. For this, I may have to resort to a word vomitus of sorts, it is the quickest way I can convey to you the intensity of last night, Sufi Night under the full moon at a sacred shrine in Lahore. . . I’m breathless thinking about it, I swear, here were my two-in-the-morning, aching bodied notes on it all:

The reason we travel, the root, the nerve, the edge. The risk. . . and the reward. The first time I felt this, I was 19 years old, perched on the lip of the Mt. Stromboli volcano, off the coast of Sicily, shooting stars above me and the earth exploding under my feet in giant plumes of red lava – this is what I felt tonight, packed into a seated throng of hashish-smoking Sufi devotees, drummers a-drumming, spinners a-spinning, heads shaking sweat all over me, sitting there, cross-legged in the front row, sitting with the musicians, in the circle, maybe a thousand Punjabi men, spiritual-seekers at this Sufi shrine and among this crowd, maybe 18 Angrez foreigners, soon shrunk to five of us – understandable, the drums were loud, legs burning, smoky, crowd pressing, flies, dirt, so many unknowns about the meaning of it all, but the warmth, the taking-in-of-us, the knowing smiles between me and the musicians, the patting of shoulders, the acceptance, the shared enjoyment as they pounded their grooves, jamming for three hours before the dancing even started, and so much energy that the air was crisp, sparkling, and charged, while also close, stuffed, and dense, the air, sweat streaming, drums taut, loud and sharp, rolling on and on, four hours straight, nonstop the waves of rhythms, exhaustion now, clean, finally, locked up in our $5-a-night cube, showered but still coated with the film of tonight, shiny like the moon, the auto-rickshaw exhaust, danced-up dust, sweat-dried-more-sweat, layers and layers of THIS NIGHT, some washed off, but all of it still there, more than memory, a thick layer of skin which I will never forget, the middle layer, the core, the root, the nerve, the reason why we travel.

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P.S. I wish the photos did better justice to the event, the scene, but it’s all I got, and it may be all you’ll see for awhile, as managing my photos will be much more difficult without a laptop. So will typing up pieces in advance, in our hotel rooms, but will have to make do. Bear with me… and see you in India.

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