Chapter One – Have a Pakistani Takeaway
It would have been the ultimate souvenir.
“You want to go home with a Pakistani baby boy?”
He wasn’t offering me a babe in arms, more a baby in the making, to put it delicately. And of course, it would have been a boy. Pakistan may be a paid up member of the nuclear arms club but the age-old belief linking virility and the production of boy babies lives on.
I declined this generous and enterprising offer. My long-suffering husband had only just begun coping with my weakness for bringing home hand-knotted carpets. A baby could be one import too many.
And anyway, Pakistan was already in my blood. It seeped in there nearly 20 years ago. It only takes an insistent car horn, the twirl of a bright scarf, wood smoke at dusk and, with an immediate and painful tug at the heart, my mind takes me back there……..
Chapter Three – Mission Accomplished
There was a brief time during the years when Britain ruled the Indian sub-continent when Murree was the summer capital of the Raj, a place to escape the almost unbearable heat of the plains. Before Simla took over the role in 1876 Murree was the place where Government officials, military personnel, their memsahibs, missahibs and the fishing fleet (young Englishwomen who’d sailed out from “Home” to look for suitable husbands) would converge to indulge in weeks of balls, dinners and romantic dalliances.
Today the reminders of those days are still here – Holy Trinity Anglican Church on the Mall (with its Sunday School times still advertised), the rustic cottages slowly decaying on the forested hillsides, and hotels such as the Cecil.
There’s a thick haze over the hills today. It soaks up most of the light from the setting sun. Broken ridges and serrated ranges of hills stretch into the gloom – their jagged edges like badly arranged toast in a rack. Each is successively more indistinct and I can’t decide if the faint suggestion of mountains far to the west is really there at all, or exists swimming only in my imagination.
Maybe it’s the altitude making me a little light-headed or perhaps it’s ramazan. I’m not a Moslem and Mujahid is an Ismaili Moslem who does not keep the annual month of fasting but it’s difficult to find places to eat during daylight hours so we adhere to it partly by necessity. Eating and even sips of water take on the nature of an illicit activity. Maybe lack of nourishment is also having a slightly hallucinogenic effect.
The Cecil is perched on a terrace at the edge of which are three small pavilions furnished with wrought-iron chairs and tables. I sit down and immediately begin to shiver – the temperature’s dropping fast as the last gasp of November sun suffuses the misty air with gold. To the north are the Karakoram mountains and some of the highest peaks on earth. The sky in this direction is clearer, and awash with steely cold blues and greens. A small tumult of cloud glows vivid apricot.
Through the Cecil’s main door are the reception rooms, their chandeliers probably uncleaned since the last memsahib sailed down the driveway for the final time. The slightly unkempt air adds to the poignancy but the magnificent mahogany staircase is immaculate – its banister silky smooth and sinuous.
Double doors open off the deep veranda into our upstairs room, where Mujahid has finally stirred into life and is watching a programme on the Discovery channel about crocodiles.
We break open a packet of fresh Iranian dates and consume them steadily and silently for several minutes. The golden dates are moist and luscious – a world away from the sad brown fibrous bullets we get at home.
“They are good for your . . . what’s the word…..” says Mujahid, spitting out a date stone.
“Digestion?” I suggest, having a fair idea it’s not what he means.
“No, no,” he says, “You know.”
“You mean they’re an aphrodisiac?”
“An afro what? A food that makes you have good sex?”
How do I get into these conversations? Between us we compile an impressive list of foods that are supposed to have the desired effect. Interestingly there are few similarities between the Pakistani and Kiwi shortlists. We muse over the possible export possibilities of promoting dates as a low-cost alternative to oysters.
Above us the ceiling has almost disappeared in the gloom. What could be the world’s oldest one-bar heater is not making an impression on the temperature in here. The ceiling stud must be at least six metres high.
Frosted double-doors lead to the bathroom. It’s like a walk-in refrigerator. There is an ancient bath with an artistic encircling of grimy rings and a thick mat of hair in the plughole. This is one of my pet aversions and any thoughts of a bath are immediately scuppered. There’s one dispirited towel hanging above the bath on a metal rail that I discover is not anchored at either end. When I flick the towel off, the rail comes too, hitting the white tiled floor with a clatter.
“Stop breaking things in there,” Mujahid calls out. I emerge, shivering, and explain that it was the result of a blonde moment.
It was a tactical error explaining this term. From then on I was frequently accused of incidents of stupidity.
But I am the one who notices the heater’s gone off and discover the plug is loose in the socket. I move it to another one and blue sparks shoot out but at least there’s a feeble glow from the single bar again.
We decide to go into the bazaar in search of dinner, preferably somewhere warmer.
Chapter Five – Cold Meat in a Wakhi Sandwich . . .
I’m a firm believer in never flying home from a trip without another one in mind.
Likewise, Mujahid also likes to plan ahead so a few days before I was due to fly home after a spring trip to Pakistan he mentioned thoughts of taking an exploratory trip to the desert state of Baluchistan. Would I be interested?
It took all of 30 seconds for me to say “yes” even though I had absolutely no idea how I was going to find the money for another airfare so soon. And the Afghan hand-knotted carpet I’d succumbed to in Peshawar had severely wounded my credit card.
But something would probably turn up. This approach makes me the despair of my financial adviser who has suggested that the best way to get myself in credit rather than debit would be if he confiscated my passport for a year.
Several months passed with no news on the expedition and then an email finally arrived.
“How does 10 days in the Baluchistan desert in December sound to you? I think it would be very good. We will take camels. You will need an armed guard.”
It wasn’t the stuff of a conventional tourist brochure but it was enough for me. Now all I had to do was find the money, and convince my family that the armed guard was just a dramatic touch thought up by the Pakistani government, and the fact Mujahid had never actually been to the area before and wasn’t exactly sure where we’d be going, wasn’t a problem.
But Mujahid was sure that the Sandy Desert of Baluchistan, which fills the basin between the Ras Koh and Siahan mountain ranges, was the perfect place for commercial camel safaris. However, before he started taking proper tourists there a reconnaissance trip was necessary. I would represent potential tour party members and provide feedback while also being almost guaranteed not to complain if our travel schedule was erratic, or panic if we got lost.
Baluchistan, which shares borders with Afghanistan and Iran, is the largest province in Pakistan and reaches south to the Arabian Sea. It is the country’s most sparsely populated province and is the least visited by tourists. In 1999, for instance, fewer than 61,000 foreign tourists visited Pakistan so the number making it to Baluchistan is infinitesimal.
Historically, there have been a few stumbling blocks with attempts to develop a Baluchi tourist industry. It’s still largely a tribal society and the occasional inter-tribal skirmish hasn’t helped its image. And, blessed as it is with hundreds of kilometres of Arabian Sea coastline and remote, hard to patrol stretches of border, it has been the scene of smuggling on a vast scale. Even the slim possibility of being caught up inadvertently in a shoot-out between smugglers and the authorities, has tended to put tourists off.
However, Mujahid and fellow guides now felt Baluchistan was a much safer prospect. Taking me there would be one way to put this theory to the test.
While I fondly imagined they were planning the minutiae of our trip I was trying to find ways of paying for my part of it. An organisation called Asia 2000 that provides financial help to New Zealand journalists wanting to write about the region decided the trip sounded suitably foolhardy to make good reading and provided me with a grant. The remainder of the costs would just have to sit on top of the carpet on the credit card.
Mujahid and I fly into Quetta, Baluchistan’s state capital, on a winter’s afternoon. Quetta is encircled by mountains so devoid of vegetation that every epoch of their turbulent geological history is laid bare.
The Baluchis say that their land was the dumping ground for Allah’s leftovers after He’d finished the rest of creation. In geological terms they are not far wrong. Baluchistan was one of the last collision points between the Indian and Asian continental plates – a cataclysmic event that gave birth to the Himalayas, Karakorams and Hindu Kush – three of the world’s great mountain ranges.
Here in Baluchistan the mountains are lower but still dramatic. Multi-hued strata of rock, twisted and shattered, rear up from the plains, dissected by faults and punctuated with signs of violent volcanic activity.
Quetta has the on-the-edge feel of a frontier town. It’s not a particularly attractive city – an earthquake in 1935 destroyed much of it and the buildings replacing them were designed to be functional and earthquake proof rather than decorative. But down at street level Quetta is far more exotic. Not only is there an ethnic melting pot of residents but it is also a stopping off point for nomads, who even today cross international borders in search of new grazing for their livestock. There are the Pathans, Baluchis, Brahuis, Hazaras and Afghans – all with their own languages, turbans or hats, tribal dress and facial characteristics.
As we drive in from the airport Mujahid points them out: “He’s a Hazara – look at his eyes – they are descendants of Mongol troops who fought in Afghanistan,”; “That man in a cap, he’s a Brahui”. Then: “My God, look at those eyes,” he says, getting momentarily distracted by two exceptionally beautiful dark brown eyes – the only visible part of a woman clad in a full-length black burqa who is standing in the middle of a traffic island.
“Sometimes the eyes are all you need to see,” he says .Mujahid is living proof covering women from head to foot is not going to stop men’s thoughts wandering.
The entrance to our hotel is a narrow hall sandwiched between two shops and the tiny foyer is piled high with battle-scarred camping gear.
“Someone’s planning a major expedition,’’ I say.
“They are,” Mujahid replies, “It’s all ours”.
The other two members of our party, Qudrat Ali Shah and Ali Nazaar have travelled from Lahore by train with the equipment and they’re recovering from the experience upstairs.
Both are cousins of Mujahid’s – more Wakhis from the mountains. Their home is in the Shimshal Valley, just a few mountains away from China and up until very recently the only access from the rest of Pakistan was a two-day walk from the Karakoram highway.
Qudrat is known by everyone as Shahjee, following an incident in Lahore some time ago that involved a foreign film crew, a Pakistani transsexual dancing girl and a police check point.(It’s a complicated story that loses something in translation he tells me). Like almost every man from Pakistan’s northern areas he has a smile that could melt the region’s glaciers in 10 minutes, has a wicked ability for mimicry and a talent for composing songs.
Ali is quieter, a thinker, but still there is that smile – seven days in his presence and I’ll be permanently cross-eyed.
After a few minutes of conversation I know I’m going to enjoy a week in the desert with these two. I’ll just have to remind myself now and then that I’m probably old enough to be their mother.
The four of us head out into the bazaar to discuss our travel plans over a meal of sajji – a Baluchi speciality of whole leg of lamb impaled on a skewer and then cooked slowly while set vertically into a bed of charcoal.
There is not another women to be seen, and all the men are muffled up to their eyeballs in woollen shawls. Outside the sajji restaurant the cooks are lit with a red glow from the charcoal and an elderly man with a straggly white beard is walking past, almost bent double as he pushes a squeaking wooden handcart laden with apples.
Despite the fact that I’m almost as well wrapped up as the men, the conversation stops as I come into the restaurant. About 15 pairs of eyes, set above some magnificent hooked noses and bushy beards, regard me with curiosity.
The lamb arrives. It’s lightly spiced and served with goats’ milk yoghurt. I ask about the travel arrangements while the four of us sit chewing on meaty hunks of bone. It’s not a long discussion – because no actual travel arrangements have been made yet.
I must look slightly panic-stricken, which doesn’t seem unreasonable, after all we are leaving for the desert tomorrow.
“Don’t worry – it will all happen,’’ Mujahid says, delicately extricating bits of lamb from between his teeth.
So apparently tomorrow we are organising the camels, their drivers, a desert guide and my armed guard – after a seven-hour trip in a four-wheel-drive. And we’ve still got to find the 4WD.
Next morning after breakfast Ali and Shahjee head back into the bazaar to find the vehicle that will take us to Kharan, the town on the edge of the desert in which, Inshallah. all our travel plans are going to fall into place.
They return about an hour later, jumping out of the back seat of a double cab ute. The driver is rugged up against the cold in a chocolate coloured shawl. (Quetta is at 1700m and December is winter as far as the Baluchis are concerned. I’m finding it pleasantly warm during the day). His companion, who is carrying a rifle and has a bandolier slung across his chest, jumps out of the back of the ute.
Our camping gear is heaved aboard and our guard climbs back in, making himself comfortable on top of our packs.
Mujahid, Shahjee and Ali sit in the back seat. I’m in the front and am in charge of catching a plastic gold-coloured ball that keeps hurling itself off the dashboard into my lap. A CD inscribed with writings from the Koran dangles from the rear vision mirror, the inside door panels are covered in blue glittery vinyl and there are small bells on the brake and accelerator pedals.
To the west of Quetta we cross the Lak Pass over which nomadic shepherds from Afghanistan are leading flocks of sheep and goats. The shepherds have golden skin and almond eyes and their heads are covered in turbans, one long end of which hangs over their shoulders.
Their animals look thin. It hasn’t rained properly here for more than three years – the soil is thirsty and so are many of the animals.
We pass through mountains splashed with sulphurous yellow and ferrous reds, and sometimes interspersed with glistening layers of coal. Some are comprised of rocks so pulverised it’s hard to see why they haven’t slumped completely to the valley floor.
By late afternoon we reach Kharan, a town that appears to have grown from the earth rather than being built by man. Most of its buildings are fashioned from mud – walls and roofs curve sensuously and are topped with whimsical chimney pots.
We plan to camp in the rest house compound but the army has got there first. We drive on to the police station to report our presence (as a foreigner my passport details have to be noted down in a ledger that looks like it is straight out of Dickens).The senior police officer on duty invites us to stay in the guest house inside their mud-walled compound. The four of us would rather camp outside the town but there’s a hint the police would be happier if we would stay where they can keep an eye on us.
The police rest house has an arched veranda along its front facade and domes of irregular sizes erupt from the roof like boils, suggesting the builder either had an exuberant sense of design or spent several heavy nights on hashish before starting work.
Mujahid has decreed I will sleep in the tent to be pitched in the compound behind the rest house. When Shahjee and I have pitched it I walk further down the compound. In the far corner the walls are topped with a thick infestation of barbed wire. I go back to find Mujahid and ask him what it is.
“It is the Kharan prison.”
I’m about to ask how come I’m the one sleeping in the tent when the three of them are going to be staying behind barred wooden doors of the guest house, when we’re interrupted.
A representative of the area’s deputy district commissioner has come to see us. The DDC, who has heard we are in town, is insisting we move to another guest house. We tell his minion we’ve unpacked all the gear and put up my tent and we’re perfectly happy. But the messenger is adamant – the police guest house is not considered suitable for foreign guests. Although I’m not relishing having to dismantle the tent I’m relieved I won’t be sleeping just a wall away from the prison inmates.
Our new home is a modern house in the district’s hospital compound. There are signs in the room I’ve been assigned that someone has been forced to make a hasty exit – a shaving brush in the bathroom and shirts hanging in the wardrobe.
My room has a sofa and an armchair and a hospital bed so high I suspect crampons might be necessary for me to reach the top. Because my room has the best range of seating it becomes the reception room for visitors. Of which there are many.
First, the DDC arrives in person. He sits on the sofa and discusses our plans with Mujahid who has the armchair. I perch on the bed with my feet dangling some way off the floor.
The DDC asks about me but I’m not expected to answer his questions. This Is Pakistan and in conservative areas such as this women don’t speak to men they are not related to.
Mujahid reels off all my personal details. I’m impressed with his grasp of my life history. I leave the room briefly and am surprised to find our visitor has brought two armed guards with him. They’re sitting on a sofa in a room across the hall and are watching a lecture about the Koran on a black and white television set. Their automatic weapons are propped against a coffee table.
The DDC leaves, telling us his cook will be sending around our dinner. For some reason his guards stay in our lounge.
He’s no sooner gone than the assistant deputy commissioner arrives. He too is entertained in my bedroom. He’s also brought two guards and they settle in with the others.
A man Mujahid thinks is the deputy assistant deputy commissioner is our final guest. Clearly there’s not a lot of night-time entertainment in Kharan. It appears he is the previous occupant of my bedroom and seems a little more aggressive in his questioning. I leave Mujahid to smooth his ruffled feathers and note, as I pass by the lounge door, that we’ve accumulated more armed men. We now have the best part of a platoon watching television and an impressive arms build-up on the coffee table.
Our meal arrives and the four of us eat it sitting on the floor of my room. The guards disappear when our plates and leftovers are removed. I go in search of my sleeping bag. I’d emailed Mujahid a few weeks earlier about this and was told not to bring one all the way from New Zealand; there were plenty in the office’s camping store.
“Have you got my sleeping bag in here?” I ask the three of them who are squeezed into the second bedroom.
Three faces look at me blankly.
“What sleeping bag?” Mujahid says.
“The one you said you’d bring me from the office.”
“You didn’t remind me about that.”
“I didn’t realise I needed to remind you about it.”
“I have many more important things to think about – not just your sleeping bag. You should have checked with me in Lahore.”
“You told me everything was under control. You would not have liked it if I’d checked up on every single thing.”
Mujahid and I have, over the years, become close friends. God knows how the relationship has survived but it has, despite being frequently and severely put to the test by cultural differences, communication difficulties, personal baggage and social pressures from both East and West.
A combination of being too alike in many ways, and some widely divergent personality traits has led to some ferocious arguments. Baluchistan was going to prove to be our make or break trip, but I didn’t know this in Kharan. All I did know was that it was just as well the weapons have been removed from the next room.
While we are working up to a major conflagration Shahjee is quietly unrolling his sleeping bag and passing it to me.
I go to bed, after shifting my hospital bed mattress on to the floor. It is such a drop to the concrete from the bed that I’m convinced I’ll roll off in the night, break an arm and then I’ll be in even more trouble.
Next morning Mujahid extends one of his unique olive branches.
“Seeing you are getting old and forgetful and have no sleeping bag we will go to the bazaar this morning and buy you a blanket.”
Equally out of character I decided to overlook the reference to my alleged infirmities.
Breakfast over, Mujahid begins a long discussion with a gaggle of guards and officials about possible routes for our trek. There is much pointing, drawing in the sand and adamant cries of “Nay, nay, nay” (No, No, No). I walk out the gate with a cup of tea and watch the sun rise over distant mountains. When I turn around I almost trip over an armed guard who has accompanied me.
Suddenly, in a way I find miraculous but no-one else seems to find at all extraordinary, we are on our way. We have an itinerary and our one police guard turns out to be the owner of five camels. We are going to his village of Zorabad, which just happens to be in the area Mujahid wants to explore.
But first we are going to the bazaar for my blanket. I’m told I must stay in the ute because my presence will put up the price. I’m dressed in shalwar kameez and a shawl. Mujahid, Ali and Shahjee are all wearing jeans, sunglasses and each has a Middle East-style headscarf tied around his head.
A camel train sways noiselessly past the ute. There are about a dozen camels and loaded on each are metre-high stacks of firewood. The men return – blanketless.
“They thought we were rich Arabs and put up the prices, “ Mujahid explains. I point out that as this appears to be the only blanket shop between Quetta and the Iranian border they are just going to have to go back.
They return with a Made in Korea acrylic king-size plush blanket. It’s bright red and decorated with an enormous peacock in fluorescent orange, blue and pink. I’m comforted by the thought that if we do get seriously lost in the desert and someone from home organises an aerial search I can spread my blanket out on the sand and even passing satellites should be able to detect it.
It’s off to Zorabad with our driver following a single set of jeep tracks through the sand. The people of the village are agog when we arrive. I am the first Western tourist most have ever seen. Babies cry when I look at them, children step back hastily when I walk past. It’s a peculiar sensation to feel such an outsider but there’s a sense too that this is a privilege – this is how the early explorers must have felt and it’s something few people nowadays get the chance to experience.
These people are Baluchis – traditionally the Baluchis are nomadic herders although today many have settled in Quetta or small villages like this one. They are tribal people for whom family honour and hospitality are vitally important. Anyone who seeks refuge with a Baluchi tribe will be defended to the death.
Blood feuds over matters of honour that can last for generations and cost dozens of lives still occur.
“A Baluchi’s revenge remains as young as a two-year-old deer for 200 years,” says a local proverb. The causes of the feuds are usually zun, zar or zamin (women, money, land).
Baluchi villages have a distinctive appearance. The houses are close together, in some cases built like a line of British terraced houses. They are tall – a design feature to protect the occupants against the 45-degree plus heat in summer and all are topped with decorative chimney pots. Diamond-shaped ventilation holes are cut into the walls, which along with the thick wooden doors, are the only openings.
Outside the houses are shelters made of branches thatched together and supported on tree trunks. These provide shade for the families’ livestock. Earthenware water pots are wedged into tripods of branches beside round brick hen houses and each cluster of houses has its own outside tandoor-style oven.
At the end of the village, where the dunes are piled up in mounds of wind-sculpted golden sand, is the mosque. It is blinding white, a dominant factor in village life but at the same time over its shoulder the desert looks ready to move in.
Our police officer Pir Baksh (Forgiven Saint in English) has gone off in search of his camels. He’s exchanged his blue police shalwar kameez for his own clothes at Mujahid’s insistence. The school is opened up for us and our gear piled on the veranda. It is hot and I doze off propped against our packs. When I wake up I’m greeted by a row of fascinated faces – most of the younger village children are standing just a few metres away – transfixed. I hope I haven’t been drooling.
Mujahid is playing volleyball with the older boys and their shouts seem to hang in the hot still air. Ali is sorting out his camping gear and Shahjee is stretched full-length asleep on top of the tents. Two women are fetching water in clay pots from the village well, they float past us in a heat haze.
And then wending between the houses come the camels led by Pir Baksh, who is soon nicknamed Chacha (uncle in Urdu) No 1, his son Quda Nazar, and Budal Khan (whose name means Vision of God) who becomes Chacha No. 2.
The camel drivers call “Ush”, the command for the animals to kneel. They do so with much deep groaning and drawn-out bellowing. Two have wooden saddle frames padded with blankets – one has a bright blue acrylic rug over the top of a traditional Baluchi woven rug compete with tassels. This is “my” camel.
The three pack animals are swamped by a sea of villagers and camel drivers all arguing over how best to load them. Mujahid, now wearing his Baluchi embroidered waistcoat, is in the centre of the chaos – yelling instructions. The Chachas no sooner tie one item of gear on before Mujahid is having it untied and repositioned. The scene is reminiscent of the trailer-packing dramas of a many a Kiwi summer holiday but there is much more dung about.
Finally, all the gear is stowed on the camels. The last item is a small grey-feathered chicken, squawking in protest, which is popped in among the baggage. Ali is planning chicken curry tonight.
Now comes the moment everyone has been waiting for. A hush falls, dozens of pairs of expectant eyes turn upon me – it is time for me to get on my camel.
What they don’t know is that I’ve ridden camels before so know what to expect. Camels rise and sit in a series of rocking motions which for the uninitiated can be rather alarmingly violent. So when my camel stands up I neither shriek, nor fall off. There is an almost palpable sense of disappointment from the crowd.
We set off – heading west. Pir Baksh is in the lead with his Kalashnikov slung over one shoulder, and his shoes over the other. We are accompanied by many villagers, including a small boy pushing an empty metal wheelbarrow. It squeaks and rattles behind us for some kilometres before its owner turns off our path.
The only other human being we see for the rest of the afternoon in this empty land is a man in a turban who is sitting bolt upright riding a bicycle across the sand dunes.
Our camel caravan is moving across land baked hard as concrete by the sun. Its surface is cracked and shiny with salt but irregular-shaped plots have been edged with border dykes. If it does rain the water will flood these parched fields and one fall will be enough to see a crop of wheat or melons through to maturity.
After two hours Chacha No1 and Mujahid begin to discuss suitable camp sites. As it’s winter it gets dark early and they want our tents pitched before nightfall. They choose a place at the base of a ridge of sand dunes and the pack camels are made to kneel so we can unload them. Their saddles are also removed and young Quda leads them into the desert.
The chicken is huddling disconsolately beside the kitchen gear. I’m glad for its sake that it won’t be spending another day on safari but I refuse to get squeamish about its fate – I love chicken curry. However, Mujahid has other ideas for the evening meal.
Before I left New Zealand I asked if I could cook a meal for them and if so what they would like.
The reply was “Bring Italian food”. So I travelled to Pakistan with pasta, parmesan cheese, olives, pesto sauce and pine nuts. So chicken was off tonight and pasta was on.
Chacha No1 and Mujahid take one of the riding camels to a nearby well to get water for us and the camels, Mujahid has commandeered the Kalashinkov and has it slung over his back.
A gas lamp is hissing in the mess tent and Ali has cups of tea ready by the time they return – we hear them first rather than see them. The water is sloshing in the plastic containers that are bumping against the sides of the camel.
Before I begin cooking we all have a fortifying slurp of Johnny Walker Red Label that has been poured into an aluminium mug. (The whisky has come all the way from Scotland via Iran and then by a more circuitous route that Mujahid is reluctant to divulge.)
Then I start to prepare a sauce while crouched on the sand in our tent. A turbaned figure wrapped in a rug appears in the tent opening. It’s Pir Baksh.
“Where is my gun?” he asks Mujahid.
“Oh God!” he replies. Mujahid put the gun down while filling up the water containers – and forgot to pick it up again.
Armed with my miniature torch that is more suitable for small scale searches in the bottom of my pack than for night time expeditions into the Baluchistan desert, Pir Baksh sets out to find his precious gun. He returns about an hour later and, with a smile that has more gaps than teeth in it, waves the gun at us.
Ali, Shahjee and I suggest he now shoots Mujahid with it. The culprit is oblivious to this. He’s fallen asleep.
“No,” says Pir Baksh, “I will not do that. He is a good man.”
I trudge off to my tent which has been pitched between the mess tent (where Ali will sleep) and Shahjee and Mujahid’s tent. Toilet arrangements are simple – there is a great deal of sand out there.
I’m not convinced about the warmth of the acrylic blanket so before I encase myself in it like a human sausage roll I put on every piece of thermal clothing I possess. I’m now surprisingly warm.
But at 1am I experience that special phenomenon of desert environments – the massive plunge in temperature from the daytime highs of 30c plus to something approaching freezing level.
I’m shaking with cold. About 10 metres away Shahjee and Mujahid are, I’m guessing, warmly tucked up in their sleeping bags.
I debate what to do. If this was in New Zealand we’d most likely have been sharing a tent to begin with, but this is Pakistan and relationships between men and women tend to work differently. Although my three Wakhi friends are comfortable with Western ways, the Baluchis are not, so for reasons of propriety I have my own tent.
But as my body temperature drops to new lows I decide propriety is all very well but it’s not worth spending a miserable sleepless night while across the dunes are sleeping bags and warmth. And what’s more I know my intentions are entirely honourable – I just have a great desire not to die of exposure on my first night in the desert.
But I decide I can at least dress decently for the journey. Our Baluchis are still sitting around their fire so I’m not going to risk offending them with the sight of me in thermal trousers and jacket. So I struggle out of the tent still wrapped up in my blanket.
Shuffling across the sands of the Baluchi desert in the dead of night while cocooned in an acrylic blanket the size of Monaco is not easy. But it is nothing compared to the dilemma that faces me when I get to the tent. What the hell do I say? Why has no-one thought to install door bells on tents?
I run through a few options “Hello, it’s me (who else could it be?), can I come in?” or, “Don’t get me wrong but can I sleep with you two?”
I opt for a discrete cough – no response.
I pull the zip on the tent fly up and down a few times but it lacks the necessary volume to make a good door-knocker. Meanwhile the camel drivers have given up all pretence of not watching me – mugs of tea are arrested halfway to their mouths; they are glued to the unfolding drama.
I finally resort to a plaintive cry that no-one has ever let me forget.
“Shahjeeee. . . .I’m freezing.”
There is a rustle from inside.
“Oh my god,’’ says a voice, the tent zip shoots up and Shahjee’s head appears through the opening.
“Come and get into my sleeping bag, I will have the rug.”
He rolls himself in “Made in Korea” and I thaw out wedged between him and Mujahid. A Kiwi in a Wakhi sandwich.
Mujahid wakes up, possibly because I’ve accidentally kicked him while I wriggle into my allotted space.
“Did you check the windows of your tent were closed?”
“I thought I had.”
“Well, you can’t have.”
I’m still shivering uncontrollably so Shahjee spreads some of the acrylic blanket across me as well.
“I thought New Zealanders were used to the cold,” Mujahid continues, “Look. I’m not even inside my sleeping bag,” He waves a foot at me.
It’s now 3am and I’m not in the mood for discussing my apparent lack of hardiness. Instead I concentrate on deciding how I will explain this to my husband.
I recounted my desert experiences in a newspaper article when I got home. During a subsequent public speaking engagement I asked if there were any questions. Sitting in the front row was a petite, elderly lady with white hair in a bun and a sweet expression. Her hand shot up immediately. I expected maybe a question on child health, but no. In a voice that could be heard right to the back of the hall she said: “What really went on in the tent?”