Note: A few days after I wrote this post, the cyclist concerned gave an alternative version of events. I currently have no way of knowing whose account is more accurate, and since the bulk of my argument still stands, I have left it as it is.
You’ll probably have heard – a couple of days ago, in a remote area of south-west Pakistan that I travelled through two years ago, gunmen attempted to kidnap a Spanish cyclist on a round-the-world journey. The cyclist survived, but six of the twelve men guarding him were killed. Five others were injured.
The many friends and blog-readers who’ve been in touch with me over the last few days seem to assume that my main feeling will be of relief (that I got through safely), with perhaps a measure of belated fear, and a touch of embarrassment that all the naysayers turned out to be right after all. But I feel nothing of the sort. I’m not surprised by the abduction attempt. I knew full well, when I set out to travel through Balochistan, that this was an area where westerners were periodically kidnapped and buses hijacked. I considered the dangers at length, and in as much depth as I was able (for obvious reasons it’s hard to find anyone who’s spent much time in Balochistan lately, and difficult to judge their reliability when you do), and decided that I was comfortable with the level of risk the journey involved. (Elsewhere in Pakistan, after a similar risk assessment, I decided to take the bus between Mansehra and Gilgit, rather than cycling through Indus Kohistan.) In a macabre quirk of irony, the day before I set off into Balochistan, one of my erstwhile courier colleagues was killed by a bus in London, proving the point I’d already made – that there are often greater risks inherent in everyday life, especially if your everyday life happens to involve one of the ‘most dangerous jobs in the world’ – which, incidentally, mine still does.
So no, I’m not shocked or even surprised by the abduction attempt. What I feel instead is a terrible gnawing shame. I’m ashamed of the risk at which I was inadvertently putting the lives of my guards and hosts in Balochistan. I’m ashamed of the naivety with which I failed to consider that I was endangering them even more than I was myself. I found the constant presence of a convoy of heavily armed policemen reassuring, and assumed that nothing could go wrong with them around to protect me. How wrong I was.
Ever since I was in Balochistan, I’ve received regular emails from people who are thinking of travelling that way themselves, and wanting my advice. My standard response is that I had a good time in Balochistan, felt safe, and was protected and well looked after, but that I have no way of judging whether I escaped kidnapping by a hair’s breadth or a long chalk, and that the decision has to be their own. Now I will unambiguously tell them not to go. It’s one matter to be cavalier with one’s own safety, but quite another to endanger the lives of others, and I am disgusted with myself for not even realizing that this was a possibility.
I’ve been understandably preoccupied with the news reports over the past few days, tracing Javier Colorado’s ill-fated journey in my mind, attempting to overlay it with my own. According to his Facebook page he entered Pakistan on Tuesday the 21st of January. The attack took place the following day, near Quetta, which is about a week’s ride from the border, so Colorado clearly hadn’t been allowed to cycle for most of the way – yet a BBC report mentions that he was “slightly hurt after falling off his bike”.
Perhaps, I mused, his experience was similar to mine. Shortly before Quetta, the convoy I was part of, consisting of a friendly Austrian couple in a Landcruiser, me and my bicycle (also in the Landcruiser) and a Toyota pickup full of armed policemen, reached a fork in the road – in fact, a major junction, with sliproads and multiple lanes, quite unlike the fragile line of tarmac (and, periodically, gravel) that had led us several hundred miles through the desert from the border.
The Austrians were heading south, to Karachi; I was continuing north, to Quetta, so we hung around for a while, waiting for another pickup to arrive. It was a cold, grey, drizzly day, and the muddy-looking mountains that marked the Afghan border glowered over us, already a distinct contrast to the flat sunny desert we’d sped across the day before. As we waited, my journalist friend phoned me (I had picked up a cheap, no-questions-asked SIM card in the market in Dalbandin when we stopped for lunch the previous day) from the Karachi Literature Festival, saying that he was on his way to Vikram Seth’s book signing, and did I want anything? A personally dedicated copy of Rivered Earth is sitting here on the table as I write, autographed in a far-off seaside city as I approached the historic gateway to Afghanistan, and presented to me on my 30th birthday a month later, on a sunny roof terrace in the foothills of the western Himalaya.
My new escort vehicle pulled up, and as Michael helped me unpack my bike and bags from the Landcruiser, I decided to try my luck and see if the police would let me cycle from here. Half-convinced that they’d stop me, I loaded the panniers onto the bike rather than into their truck, and was delighted when they seemed to accept this, and looked on fascinated. It was time to say goodbye to the Austrians I’d spent every minute of the last two days with. The previous night we had slept side-by-side, lined up on the floor of the police station at Nushki, the sharp ammoniac smell of the next-door toilet drifting across us.
“I’d give you a hug,” said Michael, “but, you know -” and he gestured eloquently at the surrounding men.
“Yes, I think they’d all want to hug me too.” I smiled gratefully, remembering a similar farewell scene in western Iran, where a Belgian travelling companion had kissed me affectionately (and uninvitedly) on the cheek, and our slightly creepy host of the previous evening had immediately scrambled to do the same, and had to be fended off.
He and Anna sped off down the sliproad with a toot and a wave, and I bestrode the bike and began pedalling slowly up the hill towards the Lakpass Tunnel, with my escort vehicle crawling along behind, grinning with childish delight at the thought that I was finally taking my first pedal strokes on Pakistani soil. I made it all the way up the hill, through the tunnel and part of the way down the other side before I was pulled over at a checkpoint and told I couldn’t cycle any further. A senior-looking policeman (taller, plumper, moustachioed) was summoned, and, with expansive hospitality, invited me into their tiny roadside hut for a cup of tea and a chance to practice his (extremely fluent) English.
The pickup drove me past desolate-looking fields and orchards, through the rain to the centre of Quetta, where I was tossed from police station to police station like a hot potato, before finally being allowed to go home with Afzal, a friend of Moin’s, who had turned up to collect me, and waited with imperious impatience while the police chiefs made phonecalls and repeatedly checked and photocopied my passport. He was a friendly, bearded, giant of a man, wearing jeans, a hoodie, and Ali G glasses that made him stand out among the drab navy blue police uniforms even more than I did. When eventually they agreed that I could go home with him (there had been talk of putting me in the Serena – the only five-star hotel in town, which I later found out had tighter security than any border I had ever crossed, and a special enclosure in the carpark where the bodyguards waited for their clients) he drove me back to the flat he shared with his brother Inder (who told me he’d once spent eighteen months working on a pound-a-bowl vegetable stall in Walthamstow), and their cook Wahid, cheerfully speculating on the likelihood of my being kidnapped while I was in town.
Over the following days I was held in effective but amicable confinement, drinking tea, smoking endless shisha (Afzal was trying to give up cigarettes), and gossiping about girls. At first the local police chief and his colleagues turned up every couple of hours to check that I hadn’t disappeared, and eventually they allocated me a bodyguard, a quiet, grizzled man who sat in the corner of Afzal and Inder’s living room with his kalashnikov, watching the boys play xbox games and being fed cups of tea and glasses of tangerine juice by Wahid.
Everyone seemed to find the prospect of my imminent kidnap highly amusing. Afzal and Inder teased me about how much money they could make by selling me on to the bandits (apparently this is what happens with some kidnaps – the victim is sold on once, twice or several times, before they finally end up with a captor who has the means or inclination to start making ransom demands), and the bodyguard insisted I pose for photos with his gun, while Afzal, Inder and Wahid looked on approvingly.
But despite their lightheartedness, no one was willing to let me stray very far from the comparative safety of the flat. After two days inside I demanded to go for a walk, and Inder nervously led me on a loop of their apartment building, before taking me inside again. That afternoon I was taken to the Serena, through all the scanners and body searches, and allowed to stroll through its gardens, safely barricaded from the outside world by a huge fortified wall. We had afternoon tea, surrounded by rich Pakistanis trying to pretend they were elsewhere, and Afzal bought me a necklace in the giftshop, waving away my protests.
“No no, I am actually being an asshole, because, matlab, this is the cheapest necklace in the shop.”
(When he was in full flow, Afzal said matlab, which means ‘meaning’, several times a sentence, and I guessed that it was the equivalent of verbal tics like ‘you know what I mean?’ in UK English.)
I wore the necklace for the rest of the year, once retracing my steps to find it when it fell off on the Qinghai Plateau, and finally lost track of it in Wales, last winter.
Afzal’s excessive generosity meant that I didn’t get to spend a single rupee the whole time I was in Quetta. As they arranged to put me on the bus to Multan (the next place from which I could safely cycle), I plotted to leave a tip for Wahid, the cook, who had kept up a constant (and very welcome) stream of cups of tea over the last few days, and who was probably the only person I could persuade to accept any token of gratitude. The only problem was, I hadn’t had the chance to break any of the 100-rupee notes I’d exchanged the last of my rials for as I crossed the border. I made the mistake of telling Afzal that I needed change. He immediately handed me the change from my bus ticket (which of course he had insisted on buying), and told me not to worry, and that he would take care of tipping Wahid. Later that evening, as the bus rumbled along the brown rocky canyons of northern Balochistan, I received a text from him:
hope u r safe n gd luck w ur travels. wahid says thanx 4 dat tip
He and his brother, like so many of the young men I met in Iran and Pakistan, were in the process of trying to emigrate, in this case to Canada, where their parents already lived, since Quetta held no prospects for them beyond occasional NGO work and the very limited social scene of the Serena Hotel. Perhaps in a year or so I’ll get to see them again, in another country, and thank them more substantially for all they did for me.
I was, I realize only now, putting Afzal and Inder at risk themselves, along with Wahid and the bodyguard whose name I never found out, and of course the men of the Balochistan Levies who helped ferry me across the desert. It is a sign of the extraordinary hospitality of the Balochis that, despite my irresponsibility in being there in the first place, and the recklessness with which I was endangering their lives along with my own, they treated me with unfailing kindness, generosity and humour. I still want to go back, but of course I can’t – not for many years.
So, if you’re thinking of going to Balochistan, please don’t. I did, and I enjoyed it, but it was a mistake – surely something can still be a mistake even if there are no immediately obvious negative consequences? I am ashamed that I endangered people’s lives, I am ashamed that it never even occurred to me that I was doing so, and I am ashamed of all the compliments I’ve received since for my intrepidness in venturing into a no go area like Balochistan. Thankfully, I will be more careful in future – not necessarily of myself (I am already more cautious with my own safety than perhaps you’d assume), but certainly of the people I travel with and among.
I am looking into making a small donation to the families of the men who died this week, though I don’t know whether it will be possible to track them down. If anyone has any information, or is able at least to find out their names, please let me know.