Part I - A Harsh Awakening
I was dazed as the train ground to a halt at the station. It was 4:40 AM. I had slept on and off since we pulled out of Margao, Goa at 2200. Once off the rail platform I was assaulted by cab drivers – even at this ungodly hour. They were all attempting to undercut the pre-paid taxi service. I appreciated their enterprising nature, but I still wasn’t interested in the rates they were offering.
I left the Victoria Terminus compound walking and emerged onto the quiet street. Rats scuttling in the shadows were the only signs of life. A cab driver pulled up and I agreed to a discounted fare.
He dropped me at the Salvation Army guesthouse in the heart of Colaba, kittycorner to the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. As I rapped on the wooden door, the disgruntled night ji informed me that I wasn’t welcome inside the guesthouse doors for another four hours. Hmmmm…
To pass the time, I laid out my multi-purpose yoga mat out on the Marine Dr promenade in front of the Taj and dozed.
Towards 0600 I winced as a bamboo stick thumped my unassuming hamstring. I craned my neck to see two police officers in cream uniforms. I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was. Sleeping on the curb in front of a landmark hotel and site of past terrorist attacks isn’t the brightest idea.
Preface: The backwaters of Kerala are fabled. It is a bonafide tourist attraction in South India. As such, there are many tour operators peddling a wide range of experiences. Truth be told, I wasn’t really interested in what was on offer. Moving around South India now after months in the tourist-deprived regions of the Middle East has required a mental shift on my part. I am no longer the only pony in town. Indeed there is a solid trail of Euros, North Americans and East Asians exploring the Hindu temples, lounging on the quaint beaches and checking into the soul purifying ashrams that the southern Subcontinent offers. As such, my presence in these regions is much less of a novelty for the local people. The frequent invitations to share tea that I have come to cherish have all but evaporated and opportunities to eat in a local family’s home seem as common as the sight of Sadhu munching an original Burger King Quarter Pounder on the ghats of the Ganges. Despite this required adaptation, I will happily admit that it has been fun to swap stories with other foreign traveler of all nationalities, indulge in breakfasts of fresh fruit, muesli, curd and leave the drain of constant political self-censorship behind. Indeed traveling South India is a monsoon breeze. I am happy to be here.
When I arrived in Allepey after five days of chilling on the beach at uber-touristy Varkala I was again in search of authentic experiences with the local people. I wanted to ‘do the backwaters’ my way. I searched among the tour operators for a basic canoe rental. Everyone wanted to sell me a tour package and no one just a canoe rental. Apparently there had been a boating accident the day before my arrival and four people had drowned (most Indians can’t swim). As a result of the tragedy, the police were cracking down on improvised forms of water traffic.
I decided just to relax and sign up for a one day tour. I did my best to ignore my skepticism and get in line with the ‘group tour’ mentality that I have perennially struggled to successfully adopt.
The tour was OK. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the experience I envisioned. That said, it was a springboard for what I was truly looking for. In one of the nearby villages where we stopped on the group tour I chatted with a man who spoke decent English. He was willing to find me a dugout canoe and facilitate my vision: to rent a canoe and spend 1-2 days getting lost in the backwaters. Although no maps were available, the area is densely populated by villagers. I assumed that I would be able to source dinner and shelter on the fly and eventually return by asking the direction of my adopted home village – Kuttamangalam.
I woke at 6 the next day and caught the local ferry from Allepey to Kuttamangalam. The boat took a different route than the previous day, but I recognized enough landmarks among the canals to find a suitable docking point and walk to my friend, Sajeeve’s house. I had told Sajeeve that I would arrive by 7:15. I was an hour late due to the ferry departure time and getting slightly lost en route. He was happy to see me, but had let my canoe back to the boat owner as he unfairly concluded that I was a no-show. I asked why we hadn’t called me. After all he had my local India number. No response. I didn’t press too hard.
He called to arrange the canoe again. As we waited, his wonderful wife served me a small breakfast. We had agreed upon the price of the canoe rental over the phone the previous night – 300 INR for one day. We set about drawing up a contract. I was hesitant to leave him my passport as collateral. We agreed upon 2000 INR ($40) as a security deposit.
I told him that I didn’t have an exact plan and that I would return either the same day or the following day.
Shortly after 9 the boat arrived and it was time to adventure. As I got situated in the shallow canoe, I began to question what I had signed up for. There was already water seeping into the craft and it was not sturdy enough for me to sit on the wooden seat. Sanjeeve placed two planks in the bottom of the vessel. One to raise my small day pack off the soggy bottom and one for me to sit on, slightly raised from the already-accumulating seepage. I rested my back awkwardly against the wooden bench.
With and awkward smile and a ‘Here we go!’ laugh I launched away from the shoreline.
I paddled slowly…
The rest of the story is best told through pics and captions.
Preface: Before arriving in India, I hadn’t put much thought into an exact itinerary. I just knew that I wanted to have my senses overwhelmed, tap into mind blowing experiences and eat lots of fresh curry. In my ambitious day dreaming, which included possible detours through Central Asia to China and across the Strait of Hormuz to the Arabian Peninsula, I hadn’t really contemplated visiting Kashmir. It was my Dad who planted the seed. We chatted over Skype while I was stuck in Lahore recovering from food poisoning. He asked me if I had considered skiing in Gulmarg. ‘No,’ was my response. ‘Google it,’ was his. I prompted did and was sold.
After a few nights in Amritsar, the Mecca for adherents to the Sikh faith, and one in Jammu, I arrived in Srinagar, Kashmir. It was a pretty magical spot even in the dead of winter. The following day I hopped a series of buses and jeeps to arrive in Gulmarg ski village. I checked into a budget guesthouse and set off to find gear rental. I was lead to a shop with decent looking powder ski equipment. The owner advised me to return at the end of the day to avoid half-day charges. Instead of protest, I obliged.
I walked the icy mountain road dodging groups of skinny Kashmiri men pulling fat Indian suburbanites on primitive wooden sleds. With an overtly judgemental smile I declined a ride at frequent intervals. During the winter season the mountain meadow cum golf course assumes a third incarnation. A small hump serves as a bunny hill for groups of elated domestic tourists turning their tips downhill for their virgin ride. Most would collapse to one side before gaining anything that resembled momentum. Their smiles, at even the smallest hint of success, were fantastic.
Adjacent to the slope was government-run gear rental shop. I checked it out. In the back, behind no fewer than three separately locked doors, their premium equipment collected dust. I inspected the two rows of aged boots and a small rack of skis in need of a good wax job. I figured they would do the trick. I got totally outfitted (including a ski jacket embroidered with the Whistler Ski & Snowboard School crest) for 700 INR - $14 USD. I was pleased.
Preface: This journey was always likely to be the most grueling and uncertain segment of my envisioned itinerary. Bumpy roads aside, the security situation in the region is semi-stable at best. Target killings in the city of Quetta are rather frequent and there have been multiple incidents of Taliban insurgency along the Taftan – Quetta corridor in recent months. Although completing the Iran-India overland route was my dream, I set out from home with a mind open to alternatives. Adventure in the name of fun is exhilarating. Death in the name of adventure is just stupid. As my Iran visa approached its expiry date, I began heavy research into the trending security situation of Balouchistan province in southwestern Pakistan. I scoured travel blogs and security reports. The more I learned, the less rational it seemed to be traveling this route. I weighed options, researched viable alternatives, did some hard thinking, had a fortunate encounter and ultimately concluded that I would make the trip. I’m so glad I did.
Note: This post spans two calendar days: December 24th and 25th
The underground wedding reception hall was pitch black as I opened my eyes and lifted my head. I gathered my belongings and followed Dan (my new travel companion; a Kiwi who had just spent six months cycling the silk road through Central Asia) into the breaking day. It was 0600. We would begin our journey to Quetta, the capital of Balouchistan.
We had been put up by a couchsurfing host the previous night. It was a great way to enjoy a final cultural exchange in Iran and to avoid arousing the curiosity of the border town police.
We taxied to the Pakistan border-bound savari (shared taxi) stand. Our new driver knew the drill. He roped my pack to the top and shoved Dan’s bag in the trunk. It was 96 km to the border. Within only twenty kilometres the prevailing patience that we would require for the duration of our journey was first tested. We exited the cab and followed an Iranian checkpost policeman, currently holding our passports hostage, to a nearby trailer. He told us to wait outside the closed door. It felt a stark contrast to the local hospitality I had to come expect while traveling Iran. The persistent dichotomy was personaified. In his uniform, this man was of The State and not The People. Minutes later another man emerged and surrendered our passports. We were back on the road.
We unloaded at the border and paid our fare. There was a decent line up waiting to exit Iran – all men. We joined them, but were soon ushered through a vacant immigration station. I paused at the TV screen showing regional news in the waiting room. No reports of violence overnight in Pakistan.
I was squished in the middle seat of between an off-duty member of the Revolutionary Guard and a quiet Computer Science major. We rattled down the Karaj-Qazvin freeway. My three very busy, but thoroughly enjoyable days in Tehran had been intense and my plan to take refuge in the hills felt smart.
We arrived in Qazvin before 10:00. I reclaimed my downsized pack (I left all unessential items in Tehran) from the trunk of the shared taxi and negotiated a private taxi to take me to where the Alamut-bound taxis congregated.
I negotiated a ride to Ramyizan, an entry-point into the Valley and the jumping off point for the Lamiasar Castle - 4000 tomans ($1.20 USD). I was the second to commit. Once the remaining two seats were filled we would hit the winding road. I took advantage of the wait time to source breakfast.
I entered a small shop. A glass case beside a flat grill top was displayed the calories on offer. Selection was limited. I pointed to the least offensive looking array of sliced sausages and with the same index finger indicated that I wanted one portion.
Moments later I had a sandwich. Before returning to the car, I also bought an array of biscuits and nuts to stave off starvation lest my planned two day trek in the mountains didn’t unfold as anticipated.
I munched. The car now awaited a single outstanding occupant. I was still hungry. I had noticed a stack of eggs in the same shop where I had purchased the survival snacks. The corner store owner was chatting with the sandwich maker. The opportunity was primed. I mustered some communications skills and approached them. With my hands and a smile I did my best to ask: ‘If I buy to eggs from you, will you cook them for me.' They were quick on the uptake and I slammed the scrambled egg sandwich as the ancient Peugot sputtered to life.
I visited northern Iraq for a reason. It does not boast the historical monuments of neighboring Syria nor a wide range of landscapes like Turkey, however I had read that the ethnic Kurdish people ranked second to none for hospitality. To date, I had enjoyed some heartwarming experiences in Dohuk, Erbil and Suleymanieh. With each day, there was growing evidence that these people were extremely gracious and welcoming. Overpaying for meals was never an issue. In fact, pay for a meal at all was the challenge.
For my final night in Kurdistan I slept in Halabja. The village cum town has a horrific history. During Saddam Hussein’s rule as leader of the Ba’athist Socialist party, he committed atrocious massacres of the Kurdish people. Arguably the single most inhumane act was to drop a chemical bomb on the town of Halabja on March 16, 1988. Within 60 minutes of detonation, more than 5 000 civilians lay dead and thousands more devasted by the mustard gas.
My ride to Halabja from Sulaymani offered beautiful views of the surrounding countryside, rolling hills and to the east, the snow-tipped mountains that formed the border with Iran. I was dropped off in the centre of town. My first mission was to find a place to sleep. I had no information and my Kurdish language skills were as abysmal as when I arrived five days earlier.
The word ‘hotel’ and the gesture of my hands under my head as a pillow had done the trick in the past. I would give it another go. As I walked the bazaar, there was not a single pair of eyes that was unaware of my presence. A slow head nod and a spoken ‘Salaam’ turned glares of curiosity into smiles of welcome in 98% of cases.
Two men dressed in camo fatigues slung with AK rifles approached me. Kurdistan is littered with checkpoints manned by Peshmerga (soldier in Kurdish). They usually just wanted to see my passport and visa stamp. I never felt threatened.
I returned to Istanbul Friday. After focusing my ‘sightseeing’ efforts on the Taksim square bars and cafes late into the night on both Friday and Saturday, I coordinated to link up with Banu again on Sunday afternoon.
At some point earlier that week I must have mentioned that my foremost priority for Istanbul excursions was to feel the wind rising off the Black Sea where the water narrows into the Bosphorus.
Evidently she had taken the comment to heart and was about to facilitate my wish – in a big way.
We embarked on a city bus. It would be our chariot for the next ninety minutes as we wound our way northeast along the Bosphorus strait. We passed mosques, churches, flower markets, kebab shops, fruit stands and parks.
I sat beside a man who reeked of sweat and had mucus accumulating in his eyes. Banu was seated across the bus aisle. Within minutes of our arrival the man began yelling at a couple of girls standing near the bus exit door. Banu quietly translated to me. He was demanding that the girls stand still because their motions would lead him to seizure. If there was any doubt from his appearance the request confirmed that he was not mentally well.
I didn’t think much of it and we continued to chat as we passed the Bogazici bridge – one of two roads that span the divide.
Beside Banu sat two off-duty soldiers. With her as the interpreter they asked me questions about my travels and Canada. They were slightly distraught after hearing of my plans to visit Iran. I smiled at their concern, but wouldn’t have expected any other reaction from members of the Turkish army.
Part way through the bus ride the man beside me began conversing with me. No, it wasn’t jibberish and no, I didn’t learn Turkish over the course of the week. His English was impressive. Doing my best not to appear taken aback I answered his questions. When I turned back to Banu, she was slightly horrified. I smiled and nodded to confirm that he was in fact speaking English and that she shouldn’t be concerned that he had overheard our hushed conversation about his mental state.