Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Travels are no fun at all

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Someone once said, and I read it years ago, that the joy and fun of travelling was inversely proportional to the speed of travel: the faster you went, the less you were likely to either enjoy the journey or to get anything out of it while a slow journey was always more meaningful. I have yet found no reason to quarrel with this very smart observation.

People might huff at this and say what is this man ranting about. But have you ever read a travelogue about a journey by modern jet (or even old fashioned propeller-driven aircraft) from one place to another. I tell you even the best travel writer in the world will be hard put to write about a flight from anywhere to anywhere. But give me a camel and a camel driver and set me loose where you want and there is a story. Conversely, let me go walkabout and watch my yarn unravel.

When you walk, you pause to talk to other wayfarers; or you fall in with them and end yup being invited into their homes for a meal or even to stay overnight. You walk and you notice the wild flowers growing by the wayside and the birds singing in the thickets; you notice the freshness of the breeze that blows in wild places and the blueness of the sky in places where the air is yet untainted by city smog. Even the green of spring leaves seems greener when you saunter rather than whiz past.

Now that's one thing. What I want to add to that smart observation about the speed of travel is that travels in the First World, the developed West, are no fun at all. Nothing exciting happens. You have to be particularly unlucky to be very nearly run over by some rum-drunk lorry driver or be attacked by feral dogs or be in a boat where no one listens to the poor captain -- and that's without even there being a mutiny. Everything is proper. People thank you if you hold the door open for them and say after you and please and be nice to you every which way. But walk into a village and there will be no one to invite you into their home for a meal. And don't even begin to imagine that you, the stranger, could put up in their spare bedroom for the night. These are things that I have done in Pakistan where all my travels have been successful because of the kindness of strangers -- total strangers.

So when I was asked to write about my recent trip to Britain and Canada, I hadn't the faintest clue what I was going to write. I still don't!

I was in London to research at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) of which, if you please, I am a Fellow. Everything worked like a dream. The staff was helpful, the books I needed were all there and the maps were available. The one Geographical Journal of 1840 was missing and the librarian told me it had been stolen (stolen, I tell you) several years ago. I nearly had a heart attack. But fortunately they had all the Journals in digital format accessible from the JSTOR website and I did not have to forgo anything.

I was in London after a gap of nearly seven years. In the meanwhile, they had shifted the RGS library from the first floor to a newly constructed basement. The only difference this time round was that the books were now no longer directly accessible to Fellows. Now one had to check the digital catalogue, get the number and seek the librarian's help. This was done, I was told, to prevent any undue damage to the volumes, some of which were nearly a century and a half old. This meant getting a book, any book, took all of three minutes. Not like the Punjab Public Library of some years ago where the groin-scratching assistant always came back to tell you the book you wanted was lost.

And then there were my weekend jaunts out of London to meet friends. One weekend walking around Oxford with friends Tony Halliday and Renee I was carrying on about all the illiterate, uncultured Pakistanis ending up in Britain to shore up the ranks of terrorists and bombers. To fill up their spare time these people are chip-fryers and dish cleaners and waiters in cockroach-infested curry places in the ghettos of Slough or Huddersfield. My gripe against these people was that they made it difficult for me to get my visa. As my voice rose, Tony looked around guiltily and asked me to keep it low for he did not want it known that he kept company with a politically grossly incorrect person. That was how exciting it got out there.

No visit to Britain would be complete without a trip out to the Lake District to meet with friends Mike and Rhona Atkinson. Years ago Mike worked in Lahore trying to sort out the mess Punjab education was in. I don't know if his contract eventually ran out or if he just gave it up as something that was simply impossible to do and bolted. But now in retirement, they live in the lovely little village of Ulverston where both do some social work and take their dogs walking in the hills.

And so the five of us, two dogs, two owners and yours truly went walking. We climbed the hill of Latter Barrow with the tall cairn on the peak and lovely views to Lake Windermere. The hill was tall: all of two hundred and fifty metres above the sea. That is, just about forty metres higher than jolly old Lahore. Incidentally, the highest peak in all Britain is Ben Nevis in Scotland. At 1344 metres above the sea it is a difficult peak to climb in winter snow. Therefore, for us Latter Barrow was a bit of a feat in comparison.

Think for a moment the astonishment of the first European explorers in the great and wonderful land of the subcontinent. Here they first saw mountain passes higher than the highest alpine peak of Europe. And when even as late as the 1820s the adventurer Godfrey Thomas Vigne went traipsing about Baltistan and went home to write about the glacier Kero Lungma, his compatriots thought he had taken leave of his senses: what business did a glacier have at such southerly latitudes so far away from the poles?

On a dismal rainy day Mike also took me visiting with an old friend I hadn't seen in years. This is Kath Walley who lives in a five hundred year old cottage. Back in 1997, she had just purchased this abandoned and ramshackle little place much to the consternation of friends and family. Why, the place was virtually falling to pieces and would take years to be made liveable. But Kath, bless her heart, set about restoring the building. Unlike us who tear down perfectly habitable twenty-year old house (leave alone those that are protected buildings) she did not take anything away from the old house. The ancient rafters, the doors, windows, floor boards, fireplaces, everything is there. Only they have been cleaned out and treated where required.

In the process of refurbishing Kath discovered that in the early 18th century the house was owned by a certain Posselthwaite family. This because the mantle of one of the fireplaces bore the legend WP 1729. This was William Posselthwaite who was a well-to-do merchant and money lender. From little items she found about the house, Kath pieced together a brief history not only of the Posselthwaite family but of the house itself. Here were pieces of old wine bottles that she had chanced upon while preparing a flower bed in the garden, a bent and stained dessert spoon or some scraps of two hundred-year old paper with writing. Such oddments are now part of her collection and they tell her a bit of the otherwise unknowable past of her home. And we? Do we ever care about such things?

And of course there was Mike Yeadon to catch up with. Mike worked with TEPA (the department that tries to make as great a mess of traffic as possible) back in the late 1980s. Like Mike A with education, Mike Y too seems to have despaired of the irreparability of the right royal mess we have made of our traffic. But Mike Y is a steam enthusiast and that was our common interest. Years ago he had told me of the triple expansion steam engine in Badami Bagh that was left to rot to oblivion. We both went snooping, took pictures and Mike told me how the engine worked.

As we pottered about we were joined by some people who told us that the engine used to pump water from the wells of Minto Park to the water tank (does anyone know of Pani wala Talab?) in the old city. They also said that the engine was running until sometime in the early 1970s. Then alternate arrangement forced the triple expansion steam engine into early retirement and from there its path to perdition was paved with official neglect. I wonder if the fading red machinery still sits on its ancient moorings?

It being a Thursday when I met up with Mike Y in Manchester, there was no possibility of going out to see that glorious steam engine number 71000 that goes by the grand name of Duke of Gloucester. Mike and his friends, none of whom are paid anything by the government to keep the Duke running, work on it on weekends and have saved it from being scrapped. It now proudly hauls tourist trains across England. Mike invited two friends one of whom is associated with the Duke and we dined in a pub and talked of the Duke and other steam locomotive in Britain.

Mike recounted how I had invited him to Pakistan back in September 1998 to come see our steam. A year before that I had been to Malakwal to check out the steam loco shed and that is what I wanted Mike to see. Meanwhile sad things had transpired. We drove out from Lahore to arrive in Malakwal early one morning only to find the magnificent workhorses of Pakistan Railway all cut up and loaded on freight wagons bound for Lahore. The only steam working Malakwal was a Ransomes & Rapier steam crane that loaded the cadavers of once magnificent locomotives on the wagons. We both came away thoroughly devastated.

And then there was Mike Boardman and his good wife Carole to see in Macclesfield. The Brits have not run out of names, only I had a knack of running only into all the Mikes in England. Mike B had threatened to take me up another hill, but only if it was a gale so that we could feel the sleet in our faces and be in danger of being blown off the cliff. Though it rained, it thankfully remained not so windy and I was spared the ordeal. Back in January 1998 I had been in just such a nightmare with the Atkinson's son Pete. Never again, I had said and told them the old adage about mad dogs and Englishmen should be amended to also include, besides the midday sun, stormy midwinter afternoons.

Felicity Hill is still as devastatingly beautiful as ever. Now she has a year-old daughter and is hugely pregnant for the second time. Good on her, I say. She lives in this little town not far to the northwest of London (name withheld for her safety) and on her street she and her husband are the only two white people amidst terrorists and bombers. Last August the snoops came around for permission to use their home to spy on a house across the street from them.

There were potential Paki bombers planning an attack somewhere, they told Fliss and her husband. The law needed more evidence and thus the need to eavesdrop. The couple said yes, but even before the police could move in with all their sophisticated paraphernalia, fifteen terrorists (all Pakis, what else?) were arrested. More mayhem and the loss of innocent lives was averted. Thank heavens, there are some police forces working somewhere in the world. But not for long.

In fifty years UK will be a Paki Muslim (read Deobandi) majority country. Everything that the Brits worked for the past couple of centuries will have safely ground to a halt. Human rights, the unbeatable public transport system, the courtesy, the libraries and centres of learning, the publishing industry will all have either been burnt to the ground or simply shut down. Slough or High Wycombe which are well on their way to being like Kala Shah Kaku or Okara will be twin cities for these dumps. The Brits will either have moved away to Canada or Kazakhstan or bombed to kingdom come. And the sun will finally set forever on little old Great Britain.

And then there was Toronto where my sister lives. She had visited in February 2004 but my niece and nephew I hadn't seen since 1989. Then Asiya was twenty and Bilal fourteen. Now she is a mother of two wonderful children and has a husband who is simply incapable of being angry. The bunch had threatened to take me skiing. Ever since I've known of Yasser Hashmi cracking a leg on a ski slope, I have been terrified. Global warming saved my life. There was no snow in Canada and some two thousand ski resort workers had been laid off awaiting the arrival of the white stuff.

Instead we gainfully employed our time in the Royal Ontario Museum and the art gallery. And of course the store called the World's Biggest Bookstore. But all the books I posted off to my address in Lahore have failed to arrive. As you read this it has been five weeks since they were despatched and I await their arrival with dwindling hope. Only a bibliophile will understand my grief. And the sad thing is that no one from Pakistan Post will benefit from this theft. They will probably sell my brand new purchases on the footpath for fifty rupees each.

Death on the ski slopes was averted but another danger loomed: sis said she was taking me to CN Tower, the tallest building in all Canada. It turned out that the building had either stairs (which Bilal said would take too long to climb) or a capsule lift. These silly glass contraptions scare me out of my wits and I simply refuse to ride the ones in Lahore and here I was being threatened with one that went up I don't know how many hundred metres. Then, I was told, the top story has a glass floor! Such architecture should be banned, I say.

You walk on the blooming glass and if it cracks you come screaming down to meet your unmaker -- the asphalt. It has never happened, but these things are known to simply take place without warning and I don't want to be there when they happen. I know I want to go out in a blaze, and falling a few hundred metres will never generate friction enough to set me alight. I therefore refused to go up the building and became the butt of my dear family's jokes.

But Toronto would not have been complete without Marty Rothman and his wife Katya. Marty too worked in Lahore in the early 1990s. The highpoint was Katya's mother a good Jewish girl from Kolkata who talked incessantly, unstoppably. Her father who was too sick to be met was from Bukhara and Iraq who had lived in Peshawar in the early 1940s. Then upon his family's advice he moved to Quetta to set up a distillery called Jacobson and Company. Not long after came the partition and mobs burnt it down. The poor man moved to Kolkata after a long and horrendous journey. There he met the love of his life and raised a family.

I wonder if Brewery Road in Quetta is a reminder of the time that Joseph Pinhazof was brewing and distilling hooch for the British Indian army. That is what I intend to discover the next time I find myself in that far off place.

And so it was homeward. Not with heaviness in my heart for leaving lands where courtesy is a matter of routine, but a longing to get back to the land of rude people and crazy traffic. As much as I enjoy the museums and book shops in the West, I have never wanted to live there. I suppose I am too used to expecting the unexpected to happen any minute. In the West life is too orderly.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 11:23,


At 26 September 2013 at 16:57, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

Why do you think we keep on comparing them with us? We, not you alone, always love to see us through their eyes. Do we get carried away by our desire of being approved by them?

At 4 October 2013 at 21:07, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Memoona, I fail to see your point.

At 14 September 2017 at 15:55, Anonymous Aftab said...

Memmona means we should not compare ourselves with West, b/c they are different. But I think courtesy is universal phenomenon amongst all mankind. Unfortunately, we as a society have replaced courtesy with something, we believe, is higher; for which we will be rewarded hereafter. However, in the process, we forgot that mankind still has to spend some time on this sinful, temporary planet earth. We failed to get the point that being good Muslim doesn't mean replace our cultural values with another cultural values, rather to upon the foundation and come up with an even better set of social values. Even prophet Muhammad PBUH loved his country, Makka. We, Pakistanis, are strange people.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days