Kabul calling

Mahindra’s   invitation to blog on my life-changing road trip took me back in time ,  to Kabul.  Not to the strife-torn Afghan city,  but a hippie-happy,  ‘wheeling-n-dealing’ Kabul of 1960s.  The place was then a bustling staging post for hippies,  hitch-hikers,  and adventure tourists from Europe,  heading East beyond Khyber Pass.

This was in 1967,  when I was 29,  unattached,  and doing Europe overland.  We were seven – a mixed group,  aged between 10 and 50 – traveling  in a 12-seater van on a London-Delhi run.  Because of a nationality issue with Pakistan,  Kabul turned out to be the end of the road for me.  Denied a visa to transit Pakistan,  I flew from Kabul to Amritsar.  Our tour organiser  Brian,  and two other Brits  in our group took the van through  Khyber Pass to  Peshawar,  Lahore,  crossing the  Wagha  border post into Amritsar.

Alone,  and on loose ends,  I spent four days in Kabul,  waiting for India flight.  Ariana Afghan Airlines  flew to Amritsar twice weekly. Not being a sight-seeing type  (didn’t even own a camera then)  I spent much time in cafes watching host of other young men and women doing the same thing.  Most of them were youth-hostellers on adventure trip,  ready with their back-pack,  hoping to hop on to  the first available vehicle offering a free ride to some place in the general direction they were heading.  Back-packers met in cafes to swap travel experience. Those heading towards Europe,  having done India and Pakistan,  exchanged notes with European hitch-hickers heading East.  Hitch-hicking was a done thing among youths those days.  Passing motorists had no hesitation in picking up back-packers thumbing a lift.  Some made good company,  on long road trips.  Cafes in Kabul town were peopled , besides back-packers,  with hippies,  unshaven,  unshowered,  and lingering over their coffee waiting for hash-dealer or a vacancy in the toilet.

The vehicles parked outside the cafes had European number plates,  and carried windshield placards offering a seat to London for 50 pounds sterling. Vans,  Land-Rovers,  and bigger coaches on their return trip from India usually had seats going.  In our van Brian was the only one doing the return road trip to London. He would have picked up a few fare-paying passengers on his home run to London. Brian,  then on his first trip East,  said he planned doing the trip on a regular basis as an overland tour operator. We were his first customers – two males,  three ladies and a 10-year-old schoolgirl.  And Brian found us through an ad.  he gave in the New Statesman personal column.

Joan,  a middle-aged wife of  Norfolk businessman,  bored with golf and country life,  wanted to do the world overland,  if only to be able to  send picture-postcards home  from exotic-sounding addresses.  Carol,  a student nurse from London,  joined us for ‘some fun and a bumpy ride’ to Bombay, from where she planned to take a ship to Sydney to join her Australian boyfriend. And then we had this young Indian couple,  with a 10-year-old girl,  heading home for a long vacation in Bombay. I believe they were close to the business family that owned the  ‘Parle’  brand of beverges.  Point is, even regular guys took to overland trips those days.  And Kabul of the hippy,  happier days  was  Mecca to road-trippers from all over Europe.  More on my Kabul,  a few paras. later.

To begin at the beginning,  my road trip started, as I mentioned,  with a New Statesman personnel column,  wherein Brian said he wanted to hear from those wanting to do India overland in May, 1967.  I was then a journalist on the staff of The Northern Echo, a daily published in  Darlington,  North-East England.  After three years in the UK  I thought it was time I returned home,  to turn a fresh  leaf in life.   And I couldn’t have imagined a better way to start on  it  than what the New Statesman ad. offered.

Advertiser Brian,  when I got in touch,  cautioned  that his trip was not for those who expected to be  ‘carried’  by others;  or those not prepared to accept some heat and discomfort;  and, definitely,  not for the type that didn’t ‘get along’  with strangers.  Brian bought a 12-seater van, funded,  presumably, through our contribution, as down-payment on a vehicle loan.  I can’t recall how much I paid,  but it was less than 100 pounds. This didn’t include our motel stay en route,  and visa fees for transiting Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia,  Bulgaria, Turkey,  Iran and Afghanistan.

Irony was , such exciting journey  across continent had a pretty pedestrian start,  at the parking lot of  London’s Waterloo station.  It was a Sunday morning, 7ish,  when the parking lot was deserted.  Brian was already there,  and waiting.  So was my friend Sushil Nangia  who had come to see me off.  I was surpised to see him there,  on a Sunday morning.  Besides being a dear friend one had to be bit of a nut to be up and about to see off someone,  so early on Sunday morning , when most of London preferred to stay in bed,  reading their favourite paper – be it the Sunday Times, Observer, The Sunday Express or the now-closed News of the World.  Nangia was, and still remains,  both –  a dear friend,  and bit of the N-word.

Our road trip involved two car-ferry crossings  – Dover-Ostend  on the English Channel,  and across Bosphorus   in Istanbul –  motoring across the Black Forest;   stopping by at picture postcard towns of  Munich, Cologne,  Baden-Baden,  Salzburg;  driving up  Kop Dagi Highland in Turkey;  crossing Iran,  taking in en route  Tehran, Tabriz, Mehshad and many other small towns to make it to the Afghan border post;  and from there to Herat,  through a moonscaped barren expanse to Khandahar and then,  to Kabul.

After four days on loose ends in Kabul, I couldn’t wait to leave town.  As I reached the airport I was told I didn’t have  ‘exit visa’. Immigration official suggested I get my passport stamped at the city police station, some 20 mins.away. He offered to  get me a taxi. I wondered if it was possible to get my passport exit-stamped at the police station and still make it back to the airport in time to catch the flight. The official at the immigration said it was worth a try –  for my flight wasn’t leaving for another hour.  A taxi-driver was ready to take me to the city and back.  And the next flight was three days away.  I had the decision made for me –  to make a dash to the city police station.  And the Kabul cabbie managed to bring me back to the airport some ten minutes before take-off.  As the Afghan Airlines Dakota took to the air with me in the plane,  I couldn’t help wonder if there wasn’t nexus between the airport counter staff and the cabbie.

Citizen Musharraf talks peace

His folks at Islamabad had tried to dissuade him from visiting India, said Gen. (retd.) Pervez Musharraf.  He knew we would ask him combative questions. That he  chose to come nonetheless, and stood his ground at a Q & A session in New Delhi, Saturday last, earned him a standing ovation.  His audience included our former army chief Gen. (retd.) V P Mallik,  J & K’s Farooq Abdullah,  ex-attorney general Soli Sorabjee, ‘Samajwadi’ Amar Singh,  leading members from the media and corporate India. 

The former Pakistan army general  said  he was here to talk peace. The burden of his piece was that India and Pakistan would do well to bury their past, stop the blame game; and move on with the confidence-building excercise to bring peace to the region. Citizen Musharraf  evidently had problem convincing a sceptical audience.  But then, he noted, anyone from India  facing a comparable audiance in Pakistan would face the same music. Would someone from India want to try ?  Anyway, the Musharraf Q & A, televised by Headlines Today, were moderated by Mr Aroon Purie of India Today. And , thank you, Mr Purie, for a  live telecast without commercial break.

Gen.Musharraf would like to see India stop the Pak army and ISI bashing. And in response to a query, he observed the RAW was doing the very thing India accused ISI of;  and until they both stopped working against each other, India-Pakistan relations wouldn’t improve.  Soli Sorabjee came up with suggestion : How about handing  over Dawood Ibrahim to India? When Gen. Musharraf  wouldn’t agree that such a hand-over would change  ground realities  Mr Purie cut in to quip, “why not try it (handing over), sir?”. To which Gen.Musharraf countered, “What, if it doesn’t work?  Would he (Dawood Ibrahim) be handed back to us?”.

 Gen Musharraf has a way with words. You may recall , during a US visit he was asked by TV guy Jon Stewart, “where is Osama bin Laden ?”

“I don’t know,” deadpanned  Gen.Musharraf, “Do you(know where to find him)?  You lead on,we’ll follow you” (laughter). This was the fist time a sitting head-of-state  appeared on Jon Stewart’s satirical show on Comedy Central. 

Next Q:  George W Bush and Osama bin Laden; who’d win a popular vote in Pakistan ?

Gen.Musharraf:  “I think they’ll both lose miserably”. 

I don’t suppose Bush would have taken it kindly. But then, as the general told a questioner at the India Today Conclave, “I don’t believe in hypocrisy”.   Now that he is no longer in power, Gen.Musharraf  is, presumably, in the process of finding a role for himself;   he would like to do whatever he can to further the peace agenda,  to promote wider people-to-people contact.

Why not make  the general a  ‘peace envoy’  for the Indian sub-continent? He might out-shine Tony Blair , Europe’s  peace envoy to the Middle-East.  Speaking of p2p contact, Gen.Musharraf  could use his  influence to mobilise young  bloggers  such as Mayank Austen Soofi to  network  informed youth in Pakistan and India.  They are the ones who would be more amenable to burying the murky past;  and moving on,  to focus  on the positives. New Delhi-based Mayank  runs, what the Pak media  termed,  ‘the website that teaches you neighbourly love’.

It’s just not cricket

lahore-attack-004The gunmen who attacked a bus carrying Sri Lankan cricket team, on way to the stadium in Lahore,  killed five cops and a van driver. If, indeed, the attackers were Pak cricket fanatics, and had wanted to wipe out Sri Lanka team, they can hardly be said to have succeeded.  If the gunmen  wanted to drive the team out of Lahore,  wasn’t it one heck a way of going about it ?

Punjab(Pak)  Governor Salman Taseer is quoted as saying that those who carried out the attack were the same terrorists who did Mumbai  in November.  But the Lahore job was on a much smaller scale, carried out within  minutes. And what’s more, all the assailants managed to get away – ‘chased into a nearby commercial and shopping area’, to use the governor’s words. ‘We don’t know where they are’, said the Lahore police chief.

In historical terms, we seem to have come a long way since 9/11.  In 2001, the world had some idea as to who were behind the attack on New York; and why they did it. Not so, in the case of Lahore. Does anyone, any longer,  know who these masked guys with a backpacks are;  and what they want by the killings.  We no longer have terrorist PRs calling a news agency after an event,  owning responsibility for an attack; and following it up with  a letter/audio tape listing their demands. As former newsman in Punjab I knew this to be standard operating procedure with Kalistani militants .

lahore-attack-018Lahore, they say,  was the first major attack on an international sporting team since Palestinian militants attacked Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.  But unlike in Munich, there was no definable enemy in Lahore.

We know of  no  terrorist outfit gunning for cricketing nations,  though the  attack on a sporting team can be said to have effectively killed cricket in Pakistan.  Which foreign team would want to tour Pakistan now, or in the foreseeable future?  Not many would want to do India either,  because of security concerns.

Leaving Dubai

Dubai is, perhaps, the last place with which I would have associated global recession,  had I not read Paul Lewis in The Guardian.  Excerpts:  At the (Dubai) airport, hundreds of cars have apparently been abandoned in recent weeks. Keys are left in the ignition and maxed out credit cards and apology letters in the glove box. 

Such is the fate of Brit  expats who become victims of the economic meltdown.  The plight of construction workers from India,  Pakistan and Bangladesh is more unimaginable.  They leave,  only with the clothes they are in,  and with their debts following them  home. Most of them had sold their land in the village and borrowed money to meet the airfare and agent’s fee.

The Guardian article quotes the site manager of a scaled down construction project  as saying,   We tell them to bring their clothes to work one day and then we send them home

Wonder if  MBP’s  Dubai-based  bloggers and some others familiar with  the region  (Maddy,  Happy Kitten)  have anything to add to this.

Mumbai 26/11: Bloggers chip in

In the begining there were bloggers. And there was a  flash-flood of posts on the Mumbai terror strike.  Many of them, bloggers, went beyond giving vent to their indignation; beyond fault-finding, finger-pointing, Paki-bashing, and came up with thoughts on steps we need to take not to get caught napping, again.

And then, someone came up with the idea of putting  together their thoughts.  Based on  the  collective thoughts of 100 plus bloggers   Ashutosh Didwania,  a public spirited IT professional,  devised an online survey to  elicit public opinion. IndiBlogger  weighed in with their  support structure to promote the 17-point survey.

To be meaningful, each of us, bloggers or not, could do our  bit create public awareness  about the survey ,  by spreading the word among our e-mail contacts.  Agreed,  this online  exercise  is restricted  to the Net-empowered among us.  The  survey,  though limited in its reach,  is  significant for its scope and content,  I reckon.

To give you an idea of the preliminary response to the  survey that went online a couple of days back,  nearly 75  percent of the first 100 who responded  favour diplomatic moves,  rather than  any military action. While recognising that both people,  in India and Pakistan, are victims of terrorism, 68 percent is for people-to-people contacts,  online and  through other means,  in mobilising people’s opinion against terrorist groups.  One in every 10 respondants, however, made it clear that they would have nothing to do  with those across the border.  I wonder, wouldn’t you, how many nay-sayers are  there over there. 

Click here to access RIM survey.