Amanda McBroom, actress, singer/songwriter and composer of the 1979 worldwide hit, The Rose. www.amcbroom.com
Click here to hear the author read
the very beginning of the book and follow this link to
find a short video trailer for In Search of Simplicity.
Click Below to:
Look to nested pages on the right for additional sample chapters or scroll way down for Chapters 28,29 and 30 and my return to the Hunza. Read out loud for maximum benefit.
The story is written in the first person. Although it is factual and autobiographical it only covers a portion of the author’s life, beginning in 1984 with a two year stay in Saudi Arabia as an advisor to Saudi Telecom. At the end of a vacation in Kashmir, John’s Indian Airlines flight is hijacked to Lahore in Northern Pakistan.
After leaving Saudi Arabia the author’s world tour is cut short when he lands in a hospital in Norway with a spinal meningitis-induced coma. Waking from the coma just long enough to prevent a potentially lethal injection of penicillin (to which he is allergic) leaves John with questions about the nature of existence. This changes his trip into a journey of discovery that spans two and a half years and every habitable continent save South America. A remarkable, almost unbelievable, chain of coincidences leads the way and shows the author when he’s on the right track. Travels initially range through South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Meetings with remarkable individuals ensue, including Mark, the ex-advertising executive from America, who gave it all away to plant trees in the Australian hinterlands.
In Papua New Guinea the author is profoundly touched by the simple, harmonious way of living of the Trobriand Islanders. During a freighter trip up the Fly River, also in PNG, John begins to clarify his vision of creating a simple, self sufficient lifestyle. At the end of that river journey John sees the devastating environmental impact of one of the world’s largest gold mines, Ok Tedi. He then goes off the track to come face to face with some of the last people on the planet untouched by Western civilization.
After a brief poignant interlude in the Philippines and a return to Canada to attend a wedding, the story resumes in China. Here John gets an appendicitis scare and encounters the insanely apathetic Chinese medical system. Strength of will propels him forward and upwards over the Khunjerab pass into fabled Hunza in Northern Pakistan. Deteriorating health and further coincidental meetings in Nepal and India propel John to seek the assistance of the great Tibetan healer, Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, in Dharmsala in northern India. It is also in Dharmsala, home of the Dalai Lama and a thriving Tibetan community, that the author experiences a profound spiritual awakening that leaves his life transformed and his purpose clear. At this time he meets Lucia, his future wife, and begins to receive a series of coincidental messages pointing him in the direction of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
An eventful return to the Hunza takes on a surreal quality through an encounter with a ghost and beams of light projecting from the mountains. All told, eleven months are spent in the Himalayas before that undeniable chain of coincidences leads John through Africa to Europe for a reunion with Lucia before heading to New Mexico to meet his destiny at a unique property outside Santa Fe. Here, this story ends and the sequel begins. That book is due to be released later in 2009.
In Search of Simplicity is the extraordinary story of an ordinary man, told with a blend of humor, penetrating insight and adventure. The book is no mere travel saga. It is an adventure into the very heart of life that leaves every reader transformed. There is a message of ecological oneness and of the unity that exists at the core of all religions and beliefs. There is a message of hope and personal healing and finding one’s personal mission in life. And the story is all the more real because it is true and is tempered with sometimes humorous incidents and flashbacks to earlier times in the author’s life.
Chapter 1 Saudi Arabia and
Chapter 2 The Hijacking in Kashmir
man traveled the world in search of Divine Knowledge, in search of the Truth. He visited many countries and consulted with many wise beings and teachers. And although he gained great insight and wisdom, he hadn’t yet found that which he sought, that which would free him from suffering and from the wheel of birth, death and rebirth. Finally he arrived in a lush land of ancient mystery. He was tired.
I’ve done enough searching, he thought. It is time for a rest. This looks as good a place as any. So he sat in the shade of a huge wizened tree, a tree seemingly almost as old as the land itself. He rested his aching back against the trunk of that gigantic denizen of the forest and looked out upon a sun dappled glade of emerald grass and wildflowers.
This is a good place to stop, he thought, wiping his brow with the sleeve of his travel-faded tunic. But wouldn’t it be nice to have some fresh water?
A crystalline brook complete with moss covered rocks instantly appeared, meandering lazily through the glade.
Wow, thought the traveler. My thirst will be quenched, but not my hunger. Wouldn’t it be nice to have something to eat?
Amazingly, a table appeared beside the stream, laden with the freshest and most exquisite food imaginable, a veritable feast.
Now, this is incredible! What better place to rest my travel weary bones and regenerate my body and soul. The only thing I need now would be some shelter in which to rest.
And then, in less than the blink of an eye, a charming log cabin appeared by the stream and the table.
What an idyllic dwelling in an idyllic setting. Surely this is Heaven on Earth, thought the traveler, scarcely believing his eyes. He rested against that tree in bliss, all the stress of the years of searching melting away. He got up and washed his hands and face in the cool and pristine water of the stream. He cupped his hands in the water and drank deeply, his thirst quenched. He sat at the table in the shade of that magnificent tree and ate his fill of the most delicious fruits and vegetables he had ever tasted.
I could stay here forever, if only there was someone to share it with, he mused.
The door of the cabin opened, and out walked the most beautiful young woman the traveler had ever beheld. She smiled and beckoned him to her.
It seems that when I’m under this tree everything I wish for instantly manifests. I wonder what would happen if I wished for a fire breathing monster?
A huge and horrific scaly, fire-breathing creature instantly appeared, blotting out the sun completely with its swaying bulk. The man cowered behind the tree trunk.
Terrified, he wondered, What if it ate me?
And it did.
I love all waste
And solitary places, where we taste
The pleasures of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.
P.B. Shelley 1792 – 1822
A Kingdom in the Desert
Toronto, Late December, 1983.
xcuse me, Sir. It would appear that we’ve overbooked in the economy section,” stated the immaculately dressed Swiss Air Representative at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. “Would you like to fly First Class?”
“Certainly,” I responded, pleasantly nonplussed. It wasn’t everyday one was bumped from Economy to First Class. I wasn’t about to turn that opportunity down. It was an auspicious beginning to my Saudi Arabian adventure. I settled into my oversized and luxurious seat for my flight to Zurich.
I had signed on for a two year contract with Bell Canada International and had attended a two day orientation seminar in Toronto. The principal message from this seminar was that I was about to be rubbing shoulders with a culture that was diametrically contrasted to my own. A successful, satisfying time in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (called KSA) would be dependent, to a large extent, on my own choices. I could isolate myself from this new world I was entering or I could embrace a host of fresh possibilities that this opportunity presented.
Bell Canada International was an advisory subsidiary of the parent company Bell Canada, which had employed me as a manager for the past three-and-a-half years. Bell Canada was a huge organization with over 100,000 employees running the telephone systems of Canada’s two most populous provinces, Ontario and Quebec. I had thoroughly enjoyed my time with this gentle giant of a company. I had held a series of junior management positions, all in the area of customer service. The company’s fundamental philosophy was to extend an exceptional level of service to our customers. No matter what happened, we took the stance that the customer was always right. This had been a great learning opportunity for me. Despite its sometimes cumbersome magnitude, I always considered Bell Canada to be an excellent employer.
For weeks I had endured a series of vaccinations, including Gamma Globulin injections to my backside that temporarily made sitting a tender affair. Thus protected from the multifarious diseases I could be exposed to in this less than fastidiously hygienic land and armed with a newly purchased hot weather wardrobe, sunglasses, a Saudi language course and world map lent by my Uncle Dick (who had already completed two tours in KSA) and encouraging words from colleagues who had recently returned from the Kingdom, I enthusiastically awaited my new assignment.
Refreshed by a good sleep in a Swiss hotel and stimulated by a special exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci sketches in a Zurich museum, I embarked on the direct flight to Jeddah.
The tweed blazer, that had partly warded off the winter chill while strolling along Zurich’s famous Bahnhafstrasse, home of banks and up market retailers, was clearly unnecessary as I immediately began to sweat in Jeddah’s modern international airport.
I had been warned that even a picture of a woman’s shoulder might not escape the censor’s black felt tipped marker. Still, it was a somewhat tedious and shocking journey through customs as every article of every passenger was checked and rechecked.
Finally, I was met by a Bell Canada International (BCI) representative and whisked off through Jeddah’s chaotic streets to the Canadian Compound and headquarters for the western portion of BCI’s operations in Saudi Arabia. It was a Thursday morning.
For the duration of my two years in the Kingdom, weekends were one-and-a-half day affairs that began at noon on Thursdays. Mosques were full of worshippers for the Friday midday prayers, equivalent to a Sunday church visit for Christians. It took some getting used to the fact that Saturday was the first day of the work week.
This Thursday morning I met with the top Canadian manager for the Western Region of BCI. He was a tall, slim, youthful man who originally hailed from London, Ontario. He had already lived for a number of years in Jeddah, which was perhaps partly responsible for his relaxed appearance. He welcomed me warmly and discussed my upcoming assignment outside of Medina, a three hour drive or a half hour flight to the north. I was to be an advisor in the Repair Service Center there. He explained that I would remain in Jeddah for a few days in order to sort out initial formalities, not the least of which was to procure a Saudi driver’s license.
A junior manager drove me to an office in another part of Jeddah where I surrendered my passport, to be safeguarded by my company, and was issued with an iqama (identity booklet and residence permit) that I was to carry at all times. Sans passport I couldn’t just hop on a plane, should I grow dissatisfied with my experience. It was explained to me that my passport would be returned to me a day before each outward journey. There was no turning back now.
By now it was midday, so we returned to the compound for the weekend. I was shown to a simple but clean and modern room in the singles apartment block. This housed all single status employees who worked in Jeddah, plus temporary visitors like me. Single status employees were those of us who were unmarried or who had left their spouse or partner in their home country.
A couple of young single Canadian men, Peter and Scott, were avid scuba divers. Between them they had an extra mask, snorkel and flippers, so they offered to take me snorkeling. They told me that all the reefs closer to the city had been damaged by the activity of people, so we would have to go further up the coast. I gladly accepted their offer and we were soon racing out of town to reach an area they regarded as excellent for snorkeling. I use the term ‘racing’ quite literally. Outside the cities the speed limit was 120 km/h, but this was rarely policed and almost as rarely adhered to. The roads were generally very straight on the mostly flat coastal plain with little traffic and excellent visibility. Many drivers regularly cruised at between 120 and 160 km/h.
The landscape fascinated me. This desert wasn’t rolling dunes as I had envisioned. Instead it was a mostly barren red and beige rock strewn terrain with a meager assortment of drought resistant vegetation. A few squat, spreading trees had tiny clusters of pea-like leaves. I was told these trees were a type of acacia. I saw no wildlife unless you want to include the ubiquitous and pesky fly. Presumably most animals would be nocturnal in order to escape the extremely hot daytime temperatures. Here, at the coast, it was extremely humid. One step outside of an air conditioned room or car resulted in instant perspiration
Before long we turned off the pavement and the two-wheel-drive Toyota bounced over the rock hard surface at significant speed. Time and again over the next two years I was to see town cars propelled cross country in order to reach choice snorkeling and diving locations. Of course, one of the results of these off road forays was that flat tires were common. When a puncture did occur a team would jump from the car to change the flat with the efficiency and speed rivaling a Formula One pit crew.
At first glance the Red Sea is nothing spectacular, its homely surface hardly betraying the stunning underwater scenery awaiting the intrepid swimmer. With relatively constant warm water temperatures year round, fringe reefs clothe the entire length of the coastline, making this one of the great dive destinations in the world. Some say the Red Sea rivals the Great Barrier Reef for diversity of underwater life. The marine life around the reefs is exceptional, including reef sharks, many species of rays, the Hawksbill Turtle and a dazzling array of weird and wonderful fish with descriptive names like Arabian Angelfish, Lionfish, Bearded Scorpion fish and Ghost Pipefish.
The tide was low so Peter, Scott and I waded out to the reef wearing swim trunks, T shirts and running shoes.
“Try not to step on the stingrays,” explained Peter as one of these silver winged creatures surged in front of him, disturbed out of its half-buried resting location under the sand above the reef. I could see why it was advisable to wear shoes. The coral was sharp and it was inhabited by a number of durable and daring denizens which had developed protective spines and various stinging apparatuses. Right then I adopted a policy I was to adhere to during countless future forays to the sea: ‘Look but don’t touch.’ This policy was to serve me well.
The boys showed me how to spit onto the inner glass surface of the mask to prevent fogging. Then, with flippers tightly secured to our still-shod feet, we were off, kicking gently and swimming along the outer edge of the reef that averaged only a foot or two below the water surface.
What a world that was! I never imagined there could be so many colors in the sea. The corals alone were like living pulsating rainbows, some pink and some aquamarine, some black, and every conceivable color in between. These weren’t the dead spiny souvenir shop coral pieces gathering dust as display shelf ornaments; these were alive with palpitating polyps and an expanding and ever evolving skeletal structure capable of supporting a multitude of beautiful and sometimes bizarre creatures.
Peter pointed at the head of a moray eel peaking out at us from its dark coral cavern. I paused to watch iridescent striped clown fish flitting within the waving tentacles of sea anemones. I reflected on the symbiotic intelligence of a nature that allowed these little fish to remain immune to the anemone’s sting, and yet by their very presence lured other unsuspecting creatures into its host’s ring of tentacles.
Huge human-sized groupers languidly cruised along the sub surface, a striking contrast to flashing schools of multicolored fish, numberless but surely in the thousands. Amazingly, none of these marine creatures were afraid of us. With our masks and flippers we benign mammalian fish were welcomed, unchallenged, to this submarine world.
I had grown up observing, respecting and loving the terrestrial landscape of North America. But nothing in my formative years had prepared me for the dizzying diversity of life in this Middle Eastern seascape. It was simply astounding. It gripped me. I knew where I would spend every possible weekend in the next two years.
After a couple of hours of this relaxing activity, an aqueous equivalent to a meandering stroll through a primeval tropical rainforest, we headed back to shore.
“What did you think of that, John?” asked Scott.
“Amazing!” was the only response I could muster, but I’m sure the immensely satisfied expression on my face spoke more clearly than did my brief reply.
“Would you like to purchase your own mask and flippers?” Scott asked.
“You bet,” I replied.
“We’ll take you to a good shop before you leave Jeddah,” added Peter.
“Great,” I affirmed. I knew I was going to love it here.
The singles compound in Jeddah was my home for these first days. Peter and Scott showed me their activity room and the well equipped gym with posters of steroidal half-naked muscle men adorning the walls. We joined some other ‘singles’ to watch a video one evening. Peter and Scott took me to a dive shop. While their scuba tanks were being filled, they helped me to choose the equipment I would need to get started with snorkeling.
Since I was due to get my driver’s license the next day, they filled me in on some of the rules of the road. I was glad to hear there were some rules because it appeared to me, as a fresh newcomer to the streets of Jeddah, that traffic here took on the form of a free-for-all, a sort of anarchy of conveyance, not far removed from bumper cars at a fair.
Driving in Saudi Arabia is on the right hand side and right hand turns are allowed on most red lights, provided the way is clear. But in Jeddah right hand turns were made from any lane, including the third lane from the right. A red light didn’t seem to mean stop. Its meaning, for many drivers, was more like a multiple choice real life and death exam question:
- Slow down if you like.
- Change lanes in the intersection and zoom past other traffic.
- Stop soon if you are still more than five seconds from the intersection.
- Some combination of the above at the discretion of the driver.
On extremely busy six lane streets in the city cars overtook on all sides, including via the emergency stopping lane.
“Scott, is driving this bad everywhere in the Kingdom?” I asked as an impatient driver leaned on his horn, wanting desperately to pass. Scott calmly changed lanes to allow the young fist-waving Saudi man through before replying, “Jeddah is unique. Residents of the city come from some seventy countries. I’m sure some of them never drove before coming to Saudi Arabia. It would seem that some must have got their licenses out of a box of Cracker Jack. There is an old joke that says, ‘Just getting out of Jeddah is as dangerous as pointing a camera at the US Consulate.’”
Settling back in my seat I was glad I wasn’t driving. It wasn’t time yet for me to get out of Jeddah.
The next day I joined two other Canadian newcomers for the trip into town to get our Saudi driver’s licenses. We were escorted by another ex-patriot, Bob, who was experienced in these matters.
“Stay calm,” he cautioned us as we entered the drive of the Jeddah Central Police Station. “Just getting a license can be a pretty unpredictable affair. The rules are constantly changing.” How prophetic his words proved to be.
We shuffled forward on the asphalt in the morning sun, in a long line slowly approaching a bored-looking official methodically filling in forms. He had a permanently surly look, as though he had been ordered unexpectedly back to work in the middle of his annual vacation. And being Saturday, this was like a Monday, I thought. I’d hate to have to deal with this guy at the end of the week. Two hours of shuffling later it was our turn.
“I bet he goes for coffee now,” said Bill, a dark haired chap of about thirty who had been on the orientation course with me in Toronto. Sure enough, as we stepped up to the counter, the clerk mumbled something unintelligible under his breath, and left.
“At least it’s not hot like in the summer,” murmured our guide.
“Small blessing,” said Bill, sarcastically.
Fifteen minutes later our official returned and snarled at us, “Driver’s licenses.” We handed over our Canadian driver’s licenses and our surly friend began filling in forms. In fairness to this man, he had to translate everything from English into Arabic. He compared each of us to the photos on our licenses.
“Chest X-Ray,” he requested, with the hint of a smirk turning up the corners of his mouth.
“Chest X-Ray?” responded Bob, incredulously. “For a driver’s license?”
The clerk carefully laid down his pen on the countertop, now looking bored as he motioned for the Pakistani men waiting behind us to advance to the counter.
“Where?” stammered Bob, forced to respond quickly after the somnolent morning.
“Hospital,” replied our interrogator eventually. He seemed reluctant to tear himself away from the next group of customers, who were anxious to get some assistance after close to three hours of waiting.
As we walked back to the car Bob turned to us and said, “See what I mean about the rules changing all the time?”
“We certainly do,” we exclaimed as we all got in the car to meet our destiny at the hospital.
Twenty minutes of death-defying driving down more of Jeddah’s multi-lane roads brought us to Abdul Aziz University Hospital. I was becoming very uneasy about the prospect of driving in Jeddah.
“This place makes driving in downtown Toronto seem like a piece of cake,” said Bill, looking as shocked as I.
“I’ll second that,” agreed Ben, the other Canadian newcomer to Saudi Arabia.
We sauntered into the hospital, a modern but drab concrete structure, and asked at reception about chest X-Rays.
“Sorry. Come back tomorrow morning. You are too late,” said the pleasant man at reception. Actually, I don’t remember if he was pleasant but the clerk in the police station made everyone else seem relatively pleasant.
As we returned to the car Bill said, “I wonder what they do if the victim of a traffic accident comes in needing an X-Ray? ‘Sorry. Come back tomorrow. You’re too late.’”
We picked up some lunch and returned to the compound to mentally prepare for our assault on Saudi bureaucracy the next day.
Sunday, the equivalent of Tuesday (Would I ever get used to the days of the week? I wondered), we set off bright and early for our chest X-Rays. All went well with the photography but there was a, by now predictable, delay in getting copies of the X-Rays to take to the police. We were not surprised to see that all our lungs received a clean bill of health and we were now optimistically cheery about our chances of getting our Saudi driver’s licenses in the afternoon.
We headed back to the police station, our optimism enhanced by a light and tasty lunch at one of Jeddah’s myriad of restaurants. We pulled into the same parking area as the day before.
“Where’s the line?” I asked incredulously. It was difficult to imagine that efficiency had improved so much in one day.
“Not only do we need to ask where the line is,” piped up Ben, “Where are the police clerks?”
We looked around flabbergasted. The building, a hive of inefficient activity the previous day, was closed up and appeared to be empty.
“You are all witnesses. It was here yesterday, right?” queried Bob. “I’m not going crazy, am I?”
“Not unless we’re suffering from collective amnesia,” I quipped.
“I don’t believe it,” said Ben, gazing around incredulously.
Taped to the window was a paper with what was for us indecipherable Arabic script. Another car pulled up and out jumped a man in dark blue Western slacks and a button up white shirt with collar. He looked Egyptian. He walked over to us.
“Salaam allay kum,” said Bob to our visitor. “Do you speak English?”
“Allay kum salaam,” replied the bearded, dark haired man. “Yes, I do.” He took a couple of minutes to read the taped up sheet of paper. “It appears there is a new police headquarters. I am going there now. Follow me.”
So, once again, we piled into the car. We followed our savior, eventually arriving at a new three storied white painted concrete structure. It was almost comforting to see a long, sinuous line leading to the same miserable clerk from the previous day. We now recognized some people who, like us, had been waiting the day before.
It was four o’clock when we reached the front of the queue.
“Salaam allay kum,” said Bob.
“Allay kum salaam,” responded our clerk, scarcely looking up. “You have X-Rays?”
“Yes,” we smiled, each handing an X-Ray and anticipating a prompt end to this interminable affair.
He filled in more forms.
After half an hour he looked up from his work and said, almost cheerily, “Very good. Come back tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” cried Bill, looking positively gob smacked.
“Yes. After ten in the morning.”
We left, shaking our heads. There was nothing to be gained in arguing.
Back at the compound I found myself engrossed in discussion with Peter and Scott over vacation possibilities. I hadn’t even started work yet and I was already dreaming of journeys to exciting and exotic destinations. They mentioned the prospect of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. Another option was trekking in the Himalayas. Peter said he was going to return to Nepal in late October to do some treks he hadn’t done on his visit there the previous year.
“That’s an excellent time to go,” he expounded. “The monsoon is over so leeches are less of a problem and visibility is excellent, since the rains have removed dust from the air. And you avoid the cold of winter. I know an Australian guide who could organize a unique route. He has lived, trekked and climbed in Nepal for years. Would you like to join me?”
“I would, at this point, definitely like to keep the possibility open,” I responded, quite excited by the concept of visiting the world’s highest mountains.
That night, tucked contentedly in bed, I reviewed my time since leaving Canada just a week before. I had briefly visited Zurich. I was adjusting quickly to my new life in the Middle East. I had already made new friends, and I was dreaming of further travels. I had survived my first encounters with bureaucratic apathy and ineptitude. It wasn’t so bad. I was being paid, and quite well at that, to do this. The reason our contracts were so long was because we became non-tax residents of Canada if we lived and worked at least two consecutive years outside the country. Saudi Arabia had no income tax so we banked all of our earnings. Our base salaries were higher than they would be in Canada, although they weren’t as lucrative as they had been for ex-patriots a few years before. We received travel allowances thrice annually and single status employees could claim for food expenses.
I slept well and dreamt of trekking along ridges and through valleys surrounded by vast snow capped peaks. I crossed boulder strewn torrents on precarious rope bridges and then, astonished, I met a surly man in a turban and he handed me a driver’s license. “What are you doing here?” I gasped. “We decided to make things more interesting for you so we built a new police station in the mountains,” he replied calmly, in perfect English.
The next morning, without difficulty, and in a more mundane setting than my nocturnal fantasy, we received our Saudi driver’s licenses.
The great American seer Edgar Cayce once said that life on this planet is characterized by three dimensions—time, space and patience. It would appear that one of the principal lessons and tests we all receive in life is patience. I had come to an excellent place to learn just that!
In looking back I can’t put the ‘blame’ on my parents for my adventurous instincts. They gave me a subscription to National Geographic when I was a teenager in response to the natural enthusiasm for learning that I had.
I have always been a lover of books. One of my most valued possessions as a boy was a set of children’s encyclopedias. I read them from cover to cover and then read them again. I did the same with an atlas given to me by my grandmother one Christmas. I remember clearly the regular trips to the library with my mother and the books that fascinated me most—biographies and autobiographies of explorers and adventurers.
The idea of living and working in Saudi Arabia captivated me from the moment I first heard of it from colleagues at Bell Canada who had been there on contract. The stories of these men fascinated me, and I jumped at the opportunity to go there once I had completed my night school MBA studies.
My two years in Saudi Arabia represented the beginning of a crack forming in the egg of my previous belief system. The adventures I had during that time opened my eyes to a world I had not even imagined existed. It was a world outside the ‘box’ of my prior existence.
That prior existence had been a mostly pleasant one. I was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, not actually in the water but in Niagara General Hospital. I returned to that hospital at the age of four with spinal meningitis and, fortunately, recovered from this little patch of unpleasantness. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t be writing this story.
I was fortunate to have amazing, loving and patient parents. My mother had been a primary school teacher who gave up her career to be a full time mother for me and my two younger sisters. My father spent his entire working life with one company, Bell Canada, starting out as a lineman and finishing off as an engineering manager.
Weekends in the warmer months of my youth were dedicated to family camping trips. We all loved hiking, campfires, canoeing, and swimming. As a family we explored much of the natural beauty and cultural richness of Ontario. Once each summer we would enthusiastically pile into the car and take a longer camping vacation. In this way I came to taste a sizable portion of the vast and magnificent grandeur of Canada, and parts of America as well.
For some years I sang in the church choir, and later I played many sports, representing my high school in some of them. I loved art and music and I learned to passably play trombone and organ. After graduating from high school I went on to obtain my Bachelor of Commerce degree from McMaster University in Hamilton before beginning full time work with Bell Canada and studying for my MBA at night school at York University in Toronto.
A Holy City
I was assigned to work in Abyar Ali (Ali’s Wells) outside of Medina, one of the holy cities of Islam. For two years home was a spacious, carpeted two bedroom apartment, in a compound that also contained an outdoor swimming pool, community games facility and library within its concrete walls. I prepared my own meals. During the week dishes and laundry were looked after by a Filipino colleague anxious to earn a little extra cash.
I dove with relish into much of the newness that surrounded me. I studied Arabic and I now saw the purpose of studying French (which had bored me in school), since roughly half of my colleagues were French Canadian. I also asked my friend and workmate, Chas, questions about the Islamic religion which he embraced with gentleness and passion. Chas was an Englishman of Pakistani heritage.
My Anglican Christian background and my schooling had done little to prepare me for a world in which people had contrasting religious training, and values with differing priorities. Religion, family and friends came before career in this society and I can’t say that I could find much fault in that.
One of the questions I came away from Canada with was, ‘Why have so many people in the world embraced religions different from the one in which I was raised and why do the so-called differences in these religions cause so much war and hardship around the world?’ Simple logic told me that all these people couldn’t be wrong.
Despite his relative youth, Chas had a wife and children back in Bradford. He was respected by the Saudis for his knowledge with telephones and for the fact that he could converse with them in Arabic. He also spoke fluent Urdu, which came in handy when visiting family in Pakistan. His desk was across from mine and he encouraged and assisted me in my Arabic studies. He was also a keen and competent squash partner for me in the evenings in which we indulged in sport. I asked Chas about the origins of Islam.
Chas happily explained, “It was about the year 610 that an Arab merchant retired with his family to a cave on Mount Hira in the Meccan valley to make a spiritual retreat. This is a place that I and many, many Muslims visit during Hajj each year. On the seventeenth night of Ramadan the merchant, Muhammad ibn Abdallah, or, as you know John, ‘Muhammad, Son of Abdallah’, was torn from his sleep in his mountain cave and felt himself embraced by a devastating divine presence claiming to be the Angel Gabriel that commanded him to ‘Recite!’
“He suddenly found divinely inspired words pouring forth from his mouth. As you know this new holy book came to be called the Qu’ran which means ‘The Recitation’. The Qu’ran consists of written and oral records compiled during Muhammad’s lifetime and in the years immediately following his death. I’m lucky to be able to read it in the original Arabic. It is extraordinarily poetic and powerful. Some of its divine essence gets lost in translation.
“John, the consequences of Muhammad’s experience were huge. When he began to preach the Word in Mecca, the whole of Arabia was in a state of chronic disunity. As a skilled statesman and commander, he was able to unify the Arab nations. Such was the power unleashed by Muhammad’s teachings, that within a century of his death Islam stretched from Spain to the Himalayas.”
“Chas, I know that one of the things he taught was that you should pray five times a day. What else did he teach?”
“Muhammad declared there was but one God and that he was a messenger of God. Each time we pray we recite the creed, ‘La illaha illa ’llah Muhammad Rasula Ilah’ (‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet’), we affirm this. Muhammad preached universal brotherhood. Every Muslim has five fundamental religious duties, known as the Pillars of Islam. Each must recite the creed, pray five times a day facing Mecca, fast during the month of Ramadan, give alms to the poor and make a pilgrimage to Mecca.”
“The pilgrimage is the Hajj?”
“Yes, and every Muslim is to make that pilgrimage at least once in their life if possible. Many don’t, of course. For those of us that live and work here it is much easier.”
“I hear people in the office mention Issa (Eesa). That’s Jesus, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is. The teachings of Islam were first revealed at the time of Creation and according to these teachings, prophets are periodically sent to earth to reaffirm God’s Word. Hence, the Qu’ran, like the Bible, is historical. These prophets or messengers are considered to be divine and include the Hebrew patriarchs, Abraham and Moses, as well as Jesus. As you’ve already heard, Jesus is called Issa, and Moses is called Musa.
“Muhammad was sent by God to restore purity. He was the last prophet; the next will be the Messiah.”
Mountains, Lakes and Lotus
y companions and co-workers in Saudi Arabia would sometimes joke that it was unsafe to travel with me. One never knew what would happen. There was a little truth in that.
In May of 1984 I had returned to Ontario for my sister Cathy’s wedding. I managed stays in Morocco and New York City during that first trip away from the Middle East, giving me a taste of things to come. In late June I was due to go on my first trip to a more exotic land. I had been gathering ideas from long term Saudi colleagues about some of the more interesting places to visit. I had decided to fly to Kenya and Tanzania and possibly climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Plans were proceeding to this end with the assistance of a most obliging travel agent in Jeddah. But the travel agent kept bumping into snags with visas and flight availability. So, just two weeks before my scheduled departure, I heeded the advice of this Indian travel agent and decided to go to Kashmir instead. My family in Canada still expected Africa to be my destination. Little did any of us know what was in store.
This was the time when Indira Gandhi was India’s leader and the Indian National Army had recently entered and bombed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the most sacred shrine in Sikhdom. To the Sikhs this was sacrilege equivalent to the horror Muslims would feel if the Kabala in Mecca was bombed by radical Christians or the outrage Roman Catholics would suffer if the Vatican was taken over by Muslim extremists.
All this was far from my mind as I settled into a houseboat on Nagin Lake in Kashmir. Coincidently, the houseboat which I shared with fellow Canadians Don and Jane Perry was named the ‘Canada Houseboat’. Don was also working for Bell Canada International and he and Jane were stationed in Abha, in the mountains in the southwest of Saudi Arabia near the Yemen border.
We soon became fast friends and enjoyed many evenings together being poled around the lake in a shikara, Kashmir’s equivalent of a gondola. Srinagar is a canal town, like its Italian counterpart, Venice. The city’s canals feed into the adjoining Dal and Nagin lakes and the whole of the verdant Kashmir Valley is encircled by magnificent mountains. To float quietly in a shikara on the glass-like lake reflecting the setting sun while vividly colored kingfishers dive and locals tend their floating gardens is to be transported to a paradise of peace and tranquility. It is appropriate that the pink lotus, holy flower of the East, grows abundantly on the lakes.
Most days I hired a taxi to visit some of the wondrous spots in the vale, like the world’s highest golf course at Gulmarg. In Sonamarg, surrounded by snow capped peaks strangely reminiscent of the Canadian Rockies in Banff and Jasper, I had been approached by an excited Indian man. He waved his arms at me to stop going down a track beside an icy stream.
“Shooting!” he cried.
It struck me as a strange place for shooting. I proceeded with caution. Around the next turn I came upon an elaborate movie set and actors in glittering, colorful attire. India has a vibrant and enormous movie industry. I had happened upon the kind of ‘shooting’ I could handle.
In the course of my stay tensions grew between the local Muslim population, under Kashmir’s leader Dr. Farouq Abdullah, and the Central Indian Government, represented by national soldiers in Srinagar. It seemed that the predominantly Muslim Kashmiri population resented the meddling of the largely Hindu-backed central government. There was a very real independence movement which was being increasingly discouraged by the Indian national army.
Don and Jane flew out a few days before my scheduled departure. They were returning to Saudi Arabia where Don had more than a year remaining in his contract with BCI. I would miss their camaraderie.
By now Srinagar residents had called for a general strike and all shops and businesses were closed. It became virtually impossible to find transport for sightseeing and the streets of Srinagar became increasingly violent. I decided that it would be best to leave earlier than planned. It was July 6, 1984. Just after sunup I said goodbye to my congenial host and crossed the lake by shikara. The oppressive tension in Srinagar seemed to permeate even this tranquil lake scene. It was definitely time to leave. At the Srinagar wharf I was notified that I wouldn’t be able to get a taxi from this usual point to the airport. There was a blackout in town and violence in the streets.
“What am I to do?” I asked my friendly and familiar shikara pilot, Abdullah.
“I can try to take you through canals on the edge of the city to a point closer to the airport, sir.”
“OK. Let’s give it a try.”
We slipped quietly through a tangle of narrow and dirty channels. This was uncharted territory for me and I relied totally on Abdullah to get us through. In the past week we had become friends. I trusted him implicitly. The city had been transformed from a charming labyrinth of canals and medieval buildings into a dark and sinister place. Almost no one was to be seen. A few times rocks were hurled at us. Fortunately, we were not hit. Our assailants seemed to realize that this blonde outsider had little to do with their internal conflict. Abdullah poled patiently on. The rat-tat of gunfire could be heard in the distance. I secretly hoped that it would stay in the distance.
At last we arrived at another dock. Abdullah tied the boat and handed me my backpack. He called out to a policeman and they conversed in Kashmiri.
Abdullah turned to me, “Try waiting here sir. There should be a bus to the airport.”
I gratefully shook his hand and paid him for his efforts. There were many policemen and soldiers standing around in small groups. I saw no civilians. The policeman directed me to what appeared to be a municipal building. Within a few minutes I was seated on a bus riding through lush farms and orchards on the way to the airport. No longer blocked by buildings, the sun turned the inside of the bus into an oven. It was with regret that I recalled I hadn’t brought any water with me.
The airport, a scene of serenity and order on my arrival, was now bedlam. I was obviously not the only one attempting to leave Kashmir.
How am I ever going to get on a flight? I thought as I pushed my way through the nervous and unruly crowd to the Indian Airline domestic counter.
“Is it possible to get on the next flight to Delhi?” I asked the harried attendant. I didn’t envy him that day.
“Sorry sir. All flights are full,” he said, hardly looking up. He must have already repeated those same words many times that morning.
What am I to do now? I thought. I didn’t look forward to pushing through the crowd again. Under other circumstances I would have been enthralled with the diverse and eclectic mix of people; the women in their vivid saris, bright as peacocks; men in duller traditional garb, the curious Indian version of Western suits, or in uniform; Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians speaking in tongues unintelligible to me. Many carried split wooden crates of Kashmir’s famous cherries. Obviously this was a tourist destination for lowland Indians. And they all wanted to leave at the same time.
“Did I hear you wanted to fly to Delhi?” The question came from a tall handsome Sikh in his late twenties. His head was topped with a huge orange turban.
“Yes,” I shouted over the din of the crowd.
He guided me fluidly through the throng to a quieter spot at the edge of the room.
“Let me introduce myself, good sir. My name is Chandar
Singh. My friends call me Chan. I come often to Kashmir on business. I came up last week by bus. I too want to get a flight to Delhi. With all this trouble in Srinagar there is no work for me here now. I know some people working for Indian Airlines. Shall I try to get seats for us both?”
This man spoke fluently and with confidence. He was dressed impeccably in the traditional churdar of the Sikh. He was no fraud. I responded immediately without a hint of doubt as to Chan’s integrity.
“Yes. I would like that,” I replied, genuinely thankful to be receiving help. I gave him my ticket and passport and watched as he easily maneuvered into an Indian airlines office. Chan was a giant of a man, almost a head clear of most Indians. I could follow his movements with ease. He was obviously on friendly terms with the airline staff. I watched as he applied his charm and joked with them. Their smiles turned to laughter. From time to time he pointed over at me. I reciprocated with little waves. It looked as if one of the men was comparing my passport photo with my distant image. It wasn’t long before Chan returned with his ever present smile and tickets and boarding cards for us both.
“We’re on the next flight,” he informed me triumphantly. “We have to go through security now.”
“Thanks a lot,” I responded. I didn’t know how Chan had done it but I was grateful.
Security was more scrupulous than I had ever encountered. I saw that some people were guided into private rooms. Chan told me they were being strip searched. In addition to a meticulous search of our bags and other carry on items we had to remove our shoes for further scrutiny. I wished I had washed my socks the previous day on the houseboat. Still, we moved along reasonably quickly and soon were seated in the final waiting area. We were able to observe the continuing intense security checks that the remaining passengers were subjected to.
As we were called to board for our flight I noticed a group of eight or nine young Sikh men, recognizable in their turbans, dash through security to get on board. None were as big or as fastidiously attired as Chan. Their rapid transit seemed incongruous after the careful searching the rest of us had received. I glanced at Chan to see if he had noticed, but he looked as calm as always. They must be late and have contacts in security, I thought.
I settled into my right aisle seat about halfway back on the full plane. Chan had the window seat beside me. I once again mentally thanked my stars for the assistance I had received in getting on this flight. I looked forward to finding a clean hotel room in New Delhi when our one-and-a-half hour flight was completed. While on the houseboat I had developed a severe case of diarrhea so I was anticipating indulging in some more hygienically prepared food. I chuckled to myself. At least I can’t call this ‘Delhi belly’; perhaps ‘houseboat horror’ was more apt. I hadn’t eaten since the morning before in an effort to settle my stomach so I was hungry now.
Orange Juice Please
The flight began uneventfully enough. I looked out the window over Chan’s shoulder, watching Kashmir’s magnificent mountain scenery recede from sight. The flight attendants were just beginning to serve orange juice. I watched expectantly as the two attractive attendants in saris steadily approached us. My tummy was rumbling. I was now thirsty as well as hungry.
Some young Sikh men ran up both aisles from the back of the plane. Could these be the men who had boarded so hurriedly? I wondered if one of their friends had fallen ill, and these men were rushing forward to notify the flight attendants.
There was the loud pop of a gun and gasps and screams as a bullet ricocheted around the plane. I, as well as everyone else, knew immediately that something was seriously wrong. It soon became apparent that we were being hijacked. The nine men I had seen rushing onto the plane at the end of boarding were commandeering the plane.
I heard later that the pilot and co-pilot had locked their cabin door and the gun was used to break the lock so that the hijackers could force access to the forward cabin. Fortunately for us all, the bullet didn’t appear to puncture the outer shell of the plane so no decompression occurred. Two of the hijackers moved forward and one took over the seat of the co-pilot, who had received a small graze on his neck from the bullet.
Six or seven other men began to patrol the airplane. Two of the men looked to be in their thirties. These men were very calm and focused and each carried a gun. They appeared to be leaders of this group. The rest of the men were very young. One hadn’t even grown a beard yet. This was easy to determine because Sikhs honour a religious code forbidding the cutting of hair.
Each of the remaining younger hijackers carried a knife. Without exception these men were very tense and masked their fear with angry looks and gestures.
After a couple of initial gasps the passengers sat dead still and silent in their seats. One of the two ‘leaders’ stood beside a flight attendant who had stopped serving orange juice just a few seats in front of us, much to my disappointment. This man spoke steadily and softly to the flight attendant who then relayed his message through the plane’s public address system. She wasn’t speaking English. This was understandable as there were only a few foreigners on the flight.
“What is she saying?” I dared to whisper to Chan. I wanted to know what was going on, but I didn’t want to disturb the men patrolling the plane. These assailants held their knives up at head height, tensely, ready to strike at the least provocation. They reminded me of coiled snakes, capable of serious or deadly bites, out of fear. I didn’t want to draw any attention to us.
“It is to do with the occupation of the Golden Temple by government troops. Most Sikhs are very angry about that. These men wish to attract more international attention for this injustice,” whispered Chan back to me.
I recalled some of the news stories I had read over the outrage Sikhs felt when Indian troops had stormed the Golden Temple.
The temple is located in Amritsar, the largest city in India’s Punjab province. Amritsar was founded a little over 400 years ago by Guru Ram Das, the fourth of the ten Sikh Gurus. His son and successor, the fifth Guru, Arjan, raised a temple in the midst of a pool, sanctified its waters and invested the Sikh Holy Scripture, the Granth Sahib, in its inner sanctum. The city takes its name from the sacred pool: amrit (nectar) and sar (pool).
I decided to chance one more whispered question. “Where are we headed?”
“I don’t know.”
We stopped talking, neither of us keen to continue and risk censure from our keepers.
Our scheduled time of arrival in New Delhi came and went and still we flew on. Then I noticed the plane making sweeping circles over a large city.
“Where do you think we are?” I whispered to Chan furtively.
“I’m not sure,” he replied softly, “It’s definitely not Delhi. Maybe it’s Lahore.” If that was the case we had entered Pakistani airspace.
My tummy continued to rumble and, although I hadn’t eaten for over twenty four hours I knew I would have to go to the toilet soon. I didn’t look forward to walking the gauntlet of the highly strung highjackers to do so. One of the two leaders came near us and I motioned to him. Through Chan I asked for permission to visit the lavatory. He agreed without hesitation and called out to the young hijackers at the back of the plane.
I got up and walked back along the aisle. I glanced around the plane and saw a couple of Western faces. They returned my nod. There obviously weren’t many of us on board. At least I wasn’t alone.
I was on edge squeezing past the unbearded baby faced highjacker who could have easily been in his teens. What had motivated him to risk his life for this venture? He held his knife tightly and raised it to head level. His arm was shaking. For an instant I caught a glimpse of his eyes. They spoke eloquently. This young man was far more frightened than I was. I made short work in the toilet. I noted how clean it was. Most of the passengers seemed to be holding their bowels and bladders. Who wouldn’t if possible? I was relieved in more ways than one when I returned to my seat a few minutes later.
Some children seated in front of us began to cry. The leader spoke to the flight attendant on our side of the plane, who soon brought milk to the children. They stopped crying almost immediately. The airplane continued to circle the metropolis below us. I nodded off.
When I awoke the late afternoon light had faded and a brilliant crimson ellipse remained where the sun had dipped below the horizon. The first lights in the city below appeared. Despite our uncertain destiny there was no denying the beauty of that moment. I checked my watch. We had been in the air for approximately five hours, more than three hours longer than the originally scheduled flight. A lump settled uneasily in my throat.
What if we run out of fuel? I wondered. Almost as soon as I noted this thought, the plane began to descend. A relatively smooth landing followed. It was met with an eerie silence by the passengers. I heard later that the Pakistani authorities had steadfastly refused permission to land until the pilot rather desperately explained that we were getting dangerously low on fuel.
With the engines now switched off, we also lost the air conditioning. A stifling heat soon permeated the plane.
The highjackers took over the plane’s public address system from the flight attendants. The two leaders took turns speaking. I had no idea what they were saying save for a word repeated frequently that sounded like ‘Zinzabad’.
“What are they saying?” I asked Chan, keeping my voice low.
“Zinzabad would be the name of an independent Punjab state should it separate from India,” he informed me.
We were soon enveloped in an oppressive tropical darkness. The chanting of the highjackers stopped. All that could be heard was the muffled cacophony of the breathing of my fellow passengers and the fluttering beat of my heart. Doing my best to ignore my hunger, I slept fitfully through the night.
Dawn came as a welcome break to the restless night. Glancing out the window past Chan’s sleeping form, I saw that the plane was now surrounded by armed Pakistani soldiers, crouching behind sandbags.
The highjack leaders were busy ensuring the children remained happy. In addition to dispensing milk, the men were now distributing the delicious-looking Kashmiri cherries put in the overhead lockers by some of the passengers. Unfortunately these fruits, like the orange juice, never quite made it to us.
One of the two leaders stopped to talk to me while he was
patrolling the plane. An average sized man with a kind face, he asked, “Where are you from?”
“Canada,” I replied.
“I hear that Canada is a beautiful country. I have family living in Toronto now.”
“That’s nice,” I responded. I couldn’t help thinking that this was a bizarre interchange. It helped me to humanize the highjackers to engage in such a personal conversation with one of them. He had been a genuinely friendly man.
The highjackers resumed the prayers and chanting they had used the previous night. Many of the Sikhs on board, including Chan, joined in the chanting.
The sun turned the stationary plane into an oven. The soporific effect of the heat was a blessing for me. By intermittently dozing off, the time passed quickly and I was given respite from my nagging hunger and thirst. The heat caused me to sweat profusely, saving me from another nerve wracking lavatory excursion. I could see that some of the elderly people seated near us seemed to be particularly distressed by the heat.
“What’s he saying, Chan?” I asked, “Did I hear the word doctor?”
“He’s asking if there is a doctor on board. Someone is quite ill; maybe a heart attack.”
A man, presumably a doctor, got up from his seat and motioned to one of the leaders. He was led to the front of the plane.
There was an Indian soldier seated a few rows in front of us. He said something to one of the hijackers. The hijacker reacted violently, rapping the soldier over the head with a wooden staff and tearing the epaulettes from his uniform.
He’s going to have some headache! I thought.
The highjackers continued to make announcements that I didn’t understand and that Chan wouldn’t translate for me. I couldn’t fathom his reticence. Lunchtime came and went. Several times orange juice and cherries were passed out. They never quite made it to us.
The highjackers grew increasingly nervous. They continued to do everything they could to keep the children happy but there was irritation in the voices of the leaders when they broadcast over the plane’s public address system. Periodically I would hear the word ‘Zinzabad’ in their discourses. Chan now told me that Zinzabad is used to mean ‘Long live…’ After the next announcement people all over the plane openly wept and began to pray. I suddenly felt a wave of uneasiness flow through me.
“What did he say, Chan?” I asked. “Why are all of these people praying?”
Chan said nothing but I detected a glistening teardrop in the corner of his eye. I grabbed his arm and insisted, “What did he say?”
He looked at me. His sad eyes spoke volumes, “The hijackers have been told that the government of Pakistan has turned down their demands and they are going to blow up the plane.”
Oh my God, I thought. I hadn’t counted on this; and I still hadn’t received any orange juice or cherries. Sometimes life just didn’t seem fair.
We all sat in shock. To everyone’s credit no one became outwardly hysterical. There was a quiet resigned feeling on board, a sort of acceptance of things as they were.
We waited; some, I’m sure, anticipating the worst. I kept thinking, These guys don’t really have a bomb on board, do they? They only rushed onto the plane in Srinagar at the last minute. Sure, they brought a few weapons on board, but could they have actually been able to secure a bomb on the aircraft? My brain chattered incessantly, a meager remedy for the uneasiness that was metamorphosing into fear. Still this inner dialogue acted as a balm that allowed me to retain my sanity and calm despite the discomfort and uncertainty.
Ten minutes passed.
Twenty minutes passed. The hands on my watch were moving even though it seemed that time was standing still.
Half an hour passed. One of the leaders, a huge smile on his face, made another announcement. The passengers erupted into cheers. The mood transformation was instantaneous and dramatic. A couple of men near the hijacker jumped up and embraced him. He returned their hugs warmly.
“What’s going on, Chan?” I asked.
He answered without hesitation this time, “They have decided not to blow up the plane. We can get off now.” Passengers in front of us were retrieving their carry on luggage from the overhead lockers and some were beginning to disembark. I looked at my watch. Twenty seven hours had elapsed since we boarded the plane in Srinagar the previous day. A wave of relief swept over me, tinged with a mild but persistent disappointment. Did this mean that I really wouldn’t get a chance to taste some of those Kashmiri cherries? We grabbed our cabin belongings and descended the stairs onto the tarmac.
I wondered if this was the time to broach the topic of service with the hijackers. How would I put it? ‘Next time remember to bring orange juice and cherries to all of the passengers.’
We shuffled around in the sultry heat as all of the luggage was unloaded right there, in the middle of the airfield. Each bag was individually checked and matched to a passenger. There was obviously some concern over bombs. I took some photos as the hijackers walked off the plane. They certainly didn’t appear to be under arrest. I watched as they stood slightly apart from the rest of the 250 passengers, casually chatting with some Pakistani soldiers. You would think they had just returned from a vacation.
I saw the co-pilot with a bandage around his head descend the steps under his own steam. Two elderly people were carried from the plane and hustled away on stretchers. A European passenger turned to me and said, “They both had heart attacks.”
Once each bag had been successfully matched to a passenger, airport buses rolled up and carried us to the main arrivals terminal. The airport had been closed in response to the hijacking so we had plenty of space to stretch out. Initially we were kept apart from the press and curious onlookers. Representatives from various embassies were ushered in and a British consul officer approached me.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Is there anyone you want called?”
“Yes. My parents.” I gave him the necessary details.
We were brought a meal of rice and a bottle of Coke. It wasn’t much but at this point anything tasted good. There was a relaxed, celebratory atmosphere in the large open room. We lounged in comfortable chairs and I chatted with a couple of other Westerners. It felt wonderful to have escaped from the cramped confines of the aircraft. I’m not usually a lover of air conditioning but the cool circulating air was most welcome. Print and television reporters followed the embassy officials
“May I ask a few questions sir?” The young, friendly Pakistani reporter smiled at me.
“Sure. Why not,” I replied.
“How were you treated by the hijackers?” he probed.
“Quite good,” I responded. “Children were given milk and other food. The hijackers did their best to meet the needs of the passengers despite the difficult circumstances.”
The reporter grew restless. I got the impression he wasn’t satisfied with what I had to say. He walked over to a nearby Indian couple.
“What were the hijackers like?” the reporter addressed the husband.
“Very unkind. They beat a soldier over the head with a metal rod.” As I mentioned earlier, I had been sitting nearby at the time of this altercation, and I had witnessed the soldier being hit with a wooden stick rather than a metal rod.
The reporter, now satisfied with the responses he was getting, asked these people many more questions. I found it interesting how the passengers, as well as the reporter, were intent on sensationalizing what had actually happened.
After more media interviews a public address announcement was made. “It will be another four to five hours before we can fly you all to Delhi. We are arranging bus tours of Lahore for those passengers who are interested.”
Why not? I thought. Most of my fellow passengers felt the same and we were soon distributed over several buses driving around Lahore to look at the sights.
Unfortunately, no one actually pointed out what we were seeing. Another Westerner, a Brit, and I provided commentary on our bus.
“This folks, would appear to be, could quite possibly be, almost certainly is an important building,” I extolled.
My fellow tour guide followed my lead, “Look out to your right. This may very well be the most important mosque in this part of Lahore.”
We carried on in this way for the duration of the one hour ‘tour’. After the tension we had all experienced, even the most staid passenger relaxed and enjoyed the improvised tour.
Our arrival in New Delhi’s outdated airport was a complete contrast to the respect and order we had experienced in the Lahore air terminal. It looked as if every living relative and friend was there to greet the homecoming passengers. We had to fight through the crowds of onlookers. Television reporters shoved bulky cameras in our faces. I was interviewed yet again. I soon tired of this and pushed my way outside and hailed a taxi. I was whisked away to an up market comfortable hotel. The taxi driver refused to honor the chit I had been given in the terminal. I was in no mood to argue. Welcome to India, I thought.
I made a point of looking in the papers the next day to read the stories related to the hijacking. It was front page news. What was printed bore little resemblance to the actual events that had transpired. The printed words were far more sensational than the facts. I had never been much of a newspaper reader. Since that time in 1984 I have rarely paid much attention to the news, and when I have, I have tried to read between the lines to get to the truth.
Back in Saudi Arabia I found out my colleagues had already seen me being interviewed about my adventure on Saudi Arabian television. I said to my friends, “Don’t ever get hijacked if you like orange juice. They don’t always serve it on hijacked planes.”
I called my parents in Ontario. My father answered, “On the day that the passengers were released, while watching the six o’clock news, the neighbors saw you walking off the plane. They, like us, thought you were visiting Africa, so they didn’t know whether to believe it was actually you. Finally, they called us and suggested we watch the eleven o’clock news. We did, and sure enough, we were more than a little surprised to see you on the television.”
“Did the British Embassy in Lahore call you?”
“Yes. But not until the next day. Still, it was good to hear definitively that you were well.”
Within a month Sikhs had hijacked another plane in Indian airspace. I didn’t find out if orange juice was served to all the passengers. In a short while there was a spate of hijackings on the world stage. One successful effort serves as an impetus for similar attempts.
It is beyond the scope and purpose of this book to delve in depth into my two years in the Middle East. I thoroughly enjoyed the small kaleidoscopic and ever-changing international community in which I lived and worked. I absolutely loved the frequent trips some of my colleagues and I made to the Red Sea for snorkeling and diving. I encountered sharks, a manta ray, and sea turtles and reveled in the iridescent richness and immense diversity of the pristine coral reef life of the sea.
I reveled too in the stark beauty and ancient history of the desert, visiting ancient Nabatean structures hewn from the existing rock in Madein Saleh in Saudi Arabia and in Petra in Jordan. I observed petroglyphs of long horned cattle on nearby natural monoliths, indicating that this parched and eroded landscape had once been a more verdant environment capable of supporting pastoral agriculture that didn’t rely on the goat and the camel.
I visited Dubai, Egypt, and Syria along with more far flung destinations. I came to love the playful innocence of my Saudi colleagues and the genuine devout nature of the Bedouin, who would pull his Hilux pickup off the side of the road at sunset, and pray, oblivious of the world driving past.
When I left Saudi Arabia for good at the end of my contract in January 1986 I returned to Jordan and then crossed the Allenby Bridge into Israel, meeting two other backpackers on the way. Together we explored some of the vast history of the Holy Land, a place of city built upon city, and temple upon temple, its history stretching back into the dim recesses of human memory. This was truly Holy Land, where one could not help but feel exceedingly close to the ancient—and the divine. My skepticism of recorded history melted away as we touched the places of the dead. This skepticism had grown out of the awareness that history is not necessarily what happened. History is what is written down, almost always by the conquerors, rather than the conquered. I also found it ironic that the word ‘history’ revealed its masculine parentage. How often do we read of ‘herstory’?
We visited the prison in Akka that had housed Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’i faith, hiked the twisting rock canyons of Kumran, where the ancient Essenes had lived and worked, and where the Dead Sea Scrolls had been discovered in the twentieth century by a Bedouin goat herder. We observed those same scrolls behind glass in a museum dedicated to their safekeeping in Jerusalem. We ventured to Masada and wondered at the courage of the martyrs who had lived out their final days in defiance of the siege of the powerful Romans. We stood at Capernaum where the multitudes had been fed on a few loaves and fishes, and where the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ was preached. And we retraced with excitement, admiration and anguish the last immortal footsteps of Jesus through the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher and the ancient, narrow streets of Jerusalem. New sensations of the present intermingled with stories from the past, particularly of a Jewish sage whose life and death continues to influence a vast portion of humanity.
Somewhat unwillingly I returned to Canada where I worked for a few months in the north-east part of Toronto for Bell Canada. However, seeds of wanderlust had been sown in my impressionable psyche and it wasn’t many weeks before I embarked on a long-anticipated six month around-the-world adventure. Little did I know that it was to turn out dramatically different from my plans. I was twenty eight.
Chapters 28, 29 and 30 Return to the Hunza
ack in New Delhi I arranged for a three month visitor’s permit for Pakistan. I also arranged for a tailor in Pahar Ganj to fashion a bag out of pliable white canvas to hold my musical cassettes. I saw Lucia briefly again. She accompanied me to the bus that would return me to Pakistan via Lahore. We agreed to write to each other. She would be returning to Amsterdam soon.
On the half empty (or half full) bus I befriended a tall American traveler, Rick. He was in his mid twenties. I told him of my love of the Hunza and he said that I might see him there. After a subsequent bus trip to Islamabad I made my way to the airport to secure a flight to Gilgit. I was told this was not possible due to fighting. No further explanation was given. I received the same answer when I inquired about taking the bus. I knew there was no sense in arguing so I journeyed by bus to Peshawar, and from there headed to Chitral. This was a scenic valley surrounded by rugged mountains. There were no other Westerners around and the place captivated me not at all. I simply longed to return to the Hunza, and to this end I boarded a bus bound for the main road that ran between Islamabad and Gilgit. I reasoned and hoped that I could get to my beloved Hunza in this way.
The bus was full, so I clambered on top, joining the fifteen or twenty men already seated there. We wound alongside a river in a picturesque, sparsely populated grassy valley. I felt safe jammed between all these men. There was little danger of falling and no overhead wires to look out for. I sat cradling my small pack which contained my walkman, a book, toiletries, and dried fruit and nuts. My larger back pack was also on top of the bus, although I couldn’t see it through the mass of unsmiling men. I sat comfortably enough, taking in the scenery and mentally reviewing my travels to this point. I had divested myself of my camera while in Delhi the first time. More and more I had seen it as a hindrance to being present and simply enjoying what was around me. During the course of this four hour trip, I decided it was time to sell my walkman. It had provided me with company and the distraction of music on long trips or when waiting for transport. In the last few months I had rarely used it. Perhaps Gandhi’s philosophy of simplification of material possessions was rubbing off on me. I knew only that I didn’t want to carry what I didn’t want or need.
At our destination I was told in no uncertain terms that I could not proceed to Gilgit. The road north was blocked by army vehicles and soldiers. I was temporarily disappointed that my plan to reach the Hunza had failed. I booked into the only available lodgings, a pleasant enough place with a basic but adequate restaurant. Tall trees shaded the central courtyard.
When extracting my sleeping bag from my pack I noticed a strap hanging out of the upper zippered pouch. That’s funny, I thought. That’s not how I left it. I unzipped the pouch and found, to my surprise, that the new canvas bag carrying my cassettes was missing. In the confusing rooftop melee of our departure from the bus, one of my fellow passengers had obviously hastily grabbed it, mistaking it for a money belt, which it closely resembled. In all my years of travel I had never been robbed, and I found it remarkable that at the very time I had decided to sell my walkman, my bag with cassettes had been stolen. One’s thoughts are obviously powerful tools of manifestation. I wondered how much one’s outer experience was shaped by inner dialogue and desires.
I had little choice but to sell my walkman now—there was nothing left to listen to. This I did in the next mountain outpost I spent time in—the Khagan Valley. At the same time I couldn’t help but feel for the person who had stolen the cassettes. He wouldn’t likely be able to listen to them, or even like the style of music if he did have access to a player. He would have much preferred cash.
I reached the Kaghan Valley via Abbottabad. Each day I went for long walks and reveled in the pristine mountain scenery. I enjoyed watching the nomadic Gujar people, men, women and children, walking with their small herds along the only available road to the summer pastures above. The lambs were carried in comfort most of the way. I noticed that I wasn’t really interested in new mountain scenery or different ethnic groups. I longed only to return to the Hunza. After a week I took a jeep back out to Abbottabad and headed north by bus to Gilgit. This time I was allowed through.
Return to Shangri La
Northern Pakistan, June, 1988.
Gilgit looked the same as I remembered. There was no sign of damage, although I heard rumors that exiles from the war in Afghanistan had penetrated this far in an unsuccessful attempt to take over the Hunza as a new homeland for their families. Armed men had arrived in Gilgit from Karimabad, Altit and other villages to bolster local forces. Word had it that the Afghan insurgents had been defeated in a battle just outside Gilgit. The Pakistani Army had assisted in the end by imprisoning captured rebels. On hearing this news, I was grateful that I had been turned back in my earlier attempts to reach Gilgit.
My first trip to this verdant mountain oasis had been at the time of the leaves falling the previous autumn. I had feasted on the rich barley breads and porridges that are so sustaining for these hardy, outdoor people. I had watched the people drying their harvested apricots and mulberries on their flat rooftops and I had tasted these delicious, sweet dried fruits together with the apricot kernels and walnuts that are also part of their winter sustenance. I had read accounts of earlier visitors to these regions who had seen how the Hunza people traditionally nearly ran out of stored food each spring. This forced them into an annual involuntary fast before the new crops of potatoes, vegetables, grains and fruits could be harvested in the late spring and early summer. Most Hunzas ate meat for special feasts once or twice a year. Their sheep were far too precious as sources of wool and dairy products to be killed more than occasionally for meat. The people were, thus, almost by default, vegetarians. Most families had just a few sheep, or perhaps a goat and a cow, and these were patiently led from one paddock to another. The animals played integral roles in the survival of each family.
I had also read that the Hunzas had long been horticulturists of excellence who had practiced and perfected the grafting of fruit trees for generations. They had developed cultivars of apricots suited to their varying purposes: some for fresh eating and others for drying; some for their sweet kernels and others for oil. Whereas modern orchardists in Western lands removed old trees and replanted orchards every thirty-five years or less, the Hunzas had developed specialized pruning practices that included sawing old trees to just above the graft after they had been in production for fifty years. In this way a tree would regain its vigor, send out new shoots, and remain productive for another fifty years. I had also witnessed how the Hunzas had been using permacultural methods long before the term ‘permanent agriculture’ had been coined. One would see grapevines sprawling happily over a spreading white mulberry tree. Every available patch of ground was utilized to its fullest.
I left Gilgit on one of the gaudily painted minibuses only Pakistanis can make. These little vehicles have a bench on each side. They are just wide enough to allow the knees of the people seated on one side to touch the knees of the people seated opposite. There are often young men hanging precariously on to the roof and sides if the benches are full. The benches are often full.
We began our journey hugging the gray and barren cliffs, often perched hazardously over the Hunza River, now roiling violently with the late spring melt. Nothing on my previous autumn visit had prepared me for the brilliant green of the Hunza Valley in early summer, glimpsed as we rounded a corner after driving through the gray Karakorum rock for more than two hours. The verdure and vitality of the small and lush green terraces, gardens and trees was almost palpable, even from this first distant glimpse. This was truly a paradise on Earth. In James Hilton’s 1933 classic, Lost Horizon, Shangri-la was such a paradise. It was a beautiful hidden valley in the Himalayas. In this valley there was no crime and no sickness, and the people lived long lives in perfect happiness. I remember discussing in high school whether such a utopia could exist. Perhaps it did and still does exist in the Hunza of yesterday and today. Perhaps the Hunza Valley was the inspiration for James Hilton’s book.
Major-General Sir Robert McCarrison served many years in the British Army Indian Medical service in the early 1900s. He was responsible for the wellbeing of the Indian troops. He soon noticed that the health of the Indian population varied enormously from one region to another. McCarrison considered the Hunzas, Pathans and Sikhs to be the finest specimens of humanity he had ever seen. He observed that the ailments common in his own people were extraordinarily uncommon amongst the Hunzas. In his nine years of practice with these mountain people, he came across not one case of cancer.
We stopped for tea in the first Hunza village we came upon and sat in the shade of a large spreading pomegranate tree in full, brilliant orange blossom. I was smitten. I had had a feeling for some time that this was going to be a special trip and I was anxious to justify this intuition. All of my difficulties in the last weeks and my repeated and thwarted attempts to reach this destination seemed worthwhile as I jumped out of the minibus in Karimabad. I had made it and it felt like a homecoming of sorts.
Since I was armed with a ninety day Pakistani visitor’s permit I still had over two months to look forward to in the Hunza. I decided to spend a little extra in order to set up a comfortable home base for my coming adventures. I found a room with two beds in one of Karimabad’s budget hotels. This charming little backpacker hotel had several rooms built around a central courtyard. The courtyard was open on one side, allowing for an uninterrupted view of Mount Rakiposhi and the breathtaking Hunza Valley. The hotel was managed by Mansour, a friendly, respectful and helpful young man in his early twenties. I asked if he could take the one bed out of my room. He kindly agreed, simply using the bed to create a three bed dormitory in one of the more spacious rooms across the courtyard from my room. The space previously occupied by the bed became my yoga and meditation area. At this stage I was doing a full yoga set, as prescribed by Lucia, every morning and most afternoons. As I had done in India, I began to grow sprouts in jars on a window sill, and, over time, enjoyed sharing salads with visitors seated on the floor. The room had a simple but functional attached toilet, basin and cold water shower—almost all the comforts of home.
I settled into a simple daily rhythm of rising before dawn, washing and shaving (I only dared the cold shower weekly), yoga and meditation. I would visit the hotel dining room for breakfast and for procurement of provisions for a picnic lunch. I usually managed to obtain a beautiful, tasty loaf of solar-baked barley bread every few days. Sometimes Mansour provided me with fresh spinach and carrots from the hotel garden. In the course of time I came to know other villagers. One young man from the nearby village of Altit became a friend. He would come by every week or so with fresh vegetables from his garden. My sprouts provided additional live greens. All this was supplemented with once-weekly trips to the Gilgit market for fruits of the season. Most days I enjoyed long walks, usually returning in mid-afternoon. Then, after yoga and a rest, I would join other travelers at one of the local restaurants for an evening meal. I was amazed at how quickly my life and my habits had changed. I thought back to my meat eating days at university and realized those days, enjoyable as they had been, were definitely in the past.
McMaster University, Hamilton, October, 1977.
Dave is older than us and he has job in Oshawa. I admire him. He is fearless and daring. He could care less what anybody thinks of him. Around Dave life is exciting, fun and unpredictable.
“What are those colored blotches on the wall,” asks Dave. He’s visiting for the weekend and he joins Duncan and me for a meal at the main university cafeteria on Friday night.
“They’re remnants of a recent Jell-O freshness test,” I explain.
“I don’t understand. How does the test work?”
“It’s quite simple. You throw some Jell-O against the wall. If it bounces back, which it usually does, it fails the test. Those blotches are examples of Jell-O that passed the test. They’re red. That was Wednesday’s.”
Duncan asks, “How do you like the chicken, Dave?”
Being Friday, it was chicken. This consisted of half chickens, lathered in a greasy sauce.
“It’s a bit raw, isn’t it,” grimaces Dave.
“That makes it exciting,” I say, demonstrating. I pick a left half-chicken from Dave’s plate and join it to my right half. “Chuck chuck chuck chuck. It’s alive.” The chicken appears to run off the table.
“Ah come on, Haines. Give me my chicken back,” Dave exclaims. We settle back to the serious business of eating.
“Do they ever have food fights here?” asks Dave. To put this story into historical perspective, this is the time when the movie ‘Animal House’ with John Belushi is all the rage with university audiences. There is a notoriously comic scene that involves a food fight. We all love the film, in part because our next door neighbor at Woodstock Hall, Mike Miles, is the spitting image of John Belushi in the film.
“What hall do those people belong to?” asks Dave, with that curious mix of innocence and rascal in his eyes that should serve as a warning to me. He points at a group of young men two tables over.
Dave stands up and yells, “Matthews sucks!” He reaches down and grabs Duncan’s food with his left hand and my chicken with his right and hurls it at the ‘offending’ table of students. Duncan and I dive to the floor for safety.
From under the table I say to Dave, “Next time do you mind waiting until I’ve finished my meal? I’m not that keen on the chicken but I am a growing boy and food goes a long way.”
“Sorry,” he grins. “I couldn’t resist throwing the mashed potatoes. They pass the fresh test.”
He jumps up, tossing my potatoes at the Matthews’ boys and screams, “Food fight!” The battle cry has been definitively launched. The place literally erupts into a free-for-all, transcending gender and place of residence. The immature joie de vivre of young people away from home soon takes over. We stay until Dave has thrown every bit of food he can reach, extending his reserves to the plates of some students seated across from us. They are in no position to complain, as they also retreat from the line of fire by ducking under the table.
Using our trays to protect us from flying chicken, potatoes, and pudding, we quickly exit the cafeteria, leaving the remaining participants to clean up afterwards.
Dave says, “That was fun.” He has a grin that looks as if he has just had his birthday, Christmas and New Year parties all at once. Boys will be boys.
Duncan and I agree later never to invite Dave to the cafeteria again.
Dave gave me a gift. By being brave enough to be himself, he gave me permission to be unique, to tread a path that was mine alone. Thus, I could dance with my own destiny, untainted by the expectations of others, or by what I imagined the expectations of others to be.
So I took steps based on the inner nudging of my heart and on the outer experiences of my life: to stop drinking alcohol, to become a vegetarian. These decisions resulted in some ridicule, which was, fortunately, mostly of the friendly sort. I found that it took some courage to walk my own path, to dance my own dance; but to live in harmony with soul purpose and to be free can mean risking ridicule and I was prepared to do that.
Our own heart, and not other men’s opinions,
forms our true honour.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1772 – 1834
Summer in Paradise
Hunza, June, 1988.
he summer days were reasonably long, so it became a habit to go for a one hour walk after dinner, following the paths along the water channels that flowed between people’s homes and terraced fields. Darkness would descend like a gentle mist, obfuscating almost entirely the range of vision during the return journeys along the unlit road that wound back to the village past the boys’ and girls’ schools, restaurants and homes of the locals. The evenings were almost always clear and still, so a few of us would drag chairs into the hotel courtyard to watch the stars and count the passing satellites. In the crystal clear mountain air it seemed like you could reach out and touch the stars.
The tiny hydro station had been completed since my previous visit to Karimabad so we now had the luxury of limited electric lighting every other night. The Nagar people across the river alternated daily with the Hunzas in using the power.
I noted that there were significantly more Western visitors than there had been the previous autumn. The pass through to China had reopened. Not long after my return I met two British men, Tim and Mark, who had traveled by bicycle up the Indus and Hunza valleys after beginning in the plains of Delhi and Lahore. They were resting in Karimabad before embarking on their biggest challenge yet—getting up and over the Khunjerab Pass.
We shared stories and lent each other books. When they heard of my dreams of pursuing a life of self sufficiency, Tim seemed anxious to share something with me. He was the taller of the two men, with blonde wavy hair and a pleasant nature, always helpful and quick to smile. We were sitting in the courtyard looking across at the grandeur of the terraced fields set against the backdrop of Mount Rakiposhi, its mighty western ridge thrusting into the clouds. “Have you heard of Findhorn, John?” he asked.
“No, what’s that?”
“It’s more of a ‘where’ than a ‘what’. It’s a spiritual community in the north of Scotland that was founded by three people in the 1960s.”
“I’ve really never heard of it. Can you tell me more?”
“It’s almost legendary. For five years its founders, Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean, ran the Cluny Hill Hotel, a big, old, multi-storey complex. They’d learned to follow the spiritual guidance Eileen received during meditation.”
“That sounds intriguing. What kind of guidance?”
“Well, for one, they were guided to leave the hotel and move to the Findhorn Bay Caravan Park. Here these three people, together with Peter and Eileen’s three young boys, parked their thirty foot caravan.
“They were unemployed with few prospects for work and no money in the bank. All six of them lived on an unemployment benefit of something like eight pounds per week. Eileen communed for two to three hours nightly with God for insight and guidance. Due to the almost total lack of privacy in their cramped living conditions, she made nocturnal sorties to the caravan park’s public toilets for her guidance.
“That guidance clearly encouraged them to start a garden in far less than ideal conditions.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“It’s my understanding that the garden was built in a place that had previously been a bit of sand and gravel surrounded by gorse and broom.
“Peter had a Rosicrucian background that left him with a simple philosophy: ‘Love where you are, love whom you’re with, and love what you are doing.’”
“I’m going to remember that. But what do you mean by Rosicrucian?”
“Let’s just say it’s a form of spiritual training that’s been around for centuries. Peter was a no-nonsense leader with drive who had previously guided at least one expedition in the Himalayas.”
This conversation seemed appropriate as we were nestled at the extreme western extremities of the Himalayas in a land of master gardeners who had hewn plots of abundance and beauty out of sand and rock in an unforgiving landscape. One of these gardeners was leading a cow on a rope on the path below us. A field of millet bent to the gentle alpine breeze.
“So was he the driving force behind the garden work?”
“He was definitely a leader but each of the three adults brought their own particular talents to the project. Their work of creating gardens and beauty was interspersed with times of quiet inner activity. Eileen and Dorothy wrote down the daily guidance they received. Peter tended to receive intuitive flashes of guidance, often while he was actively engaged in work.
“You’ll like this John. Dorothy Maclean is Canadian. After a couple of months of gardening their first spring, she received her first clear message from nature, from the deva for garden peas.”
“Whoa Tim. What do you mean by deva?”
“I’m no expert, but the Caddies and Dorothy Maclean knew from their earlier studies that devas are angelic-like beings responsible for the patterns and forms of nature. What I think is important to the story is that these former hoteliers had almost no gardening experience between them. They’d been reading gardening books through the winter which had contradictory advice, most of which applied to totally different gardening conditions in England’s more fertile and relatively balmy south. They were extremely grateful to receive this unexpected help and they acted upon it immediately.”
“I can certainly relate to what you’re telling me. I too have very little gardening experience.”
“Look for books on Findhorn when you get a chance, John. Even with their almost total lack of experience, Peter, Eileen and Dorothy had extraordinary success that soon became the subject of media stories, and their fame spread. They knew they were embarking on a pioneering way of working with nature that seems so important in these times in which many people have lost their connection with the natural world.”
“What kind of success did they have?”
“Their vegetables grew in ways that seemed to result from more than just hard work and sound organic practices and composting. One story I heard was that they had calculated they would be able to use eight red cabbages at an average weight of four pounds a cabbage. They didn’t count on one of their cabbages weighing thirty eight pounds and another forty two.”
“Oh, I like that. I’m going to look into this. Thanks, Tim.”
Upon hearing my stories about all of the signs pointing me to Santa Fe, New Mexico, my same British friends lent me a Shirley MacLaine book I had read many years before, Dancing in the Light. It was good to reread it. Amongst other things the celebrity author wrote of her adventures in New Mexico. She told of the SW Native Americans’ fascination with turquoise. I had to grin when reading this, touching the turquoise necklace Lucia had given me when we parted in Dharmsala. Shirley MacLaine also wrote of her visits to see Chris Griscom for a sort of spiritual acupuncture in Galileo, a village outside Santa Fe.
Just before leaving for their uphill biking adventure this same British pair came to say goodbye. Mark acted as the spokesperson this time. He had straight dark hair and glasses, a button nose and face darkened by the sun of many days spent on his bicycle. “We want to lighten up our loads as much as possible before this next leg of our trip. We’re giving away books and there’s one we really want you to have.” He handed me a copy of Richard Bach’s Illusions.
I protested, responding, “Thanks but I’ve read it many times already. Not long ago I gave away my last copy. Perhaps you should give it to someone else.”
“We really think you should have it,” was his immediate reply.
“OK. If you insist.” I gave in. I set the thin paperback with its distinctive black cover on the window sill with my other books, promising myself to look at it in about a month’s time.
A Bowl of Cherries
The poplar leaves made the softest chiming flutter in the breeze flowing down off the flank of the nearest peak. The dew would soon be but a memory as the sun’s morning rays pierced the thin mountain air. The first of the day’s minibuses pulled in from Gilgit and out climbed a large and familiar figure. It was Rick, the soft-spoken American I had befriended on the Delhi-Lahore bus the month before. A good six foot four, with glasses framing his shining eyes, he was every bit the gentle giant. He claimed one of the three beds in the ‘dorm’ room in my hotel. We spent a lot of time together and he often joined me for the pleasant after dinner walks and the stargazing that followed. We shared our stories and our aspirations. I spoke to Rick about how I had come to find travelling so much more rewarding when I lingered longer in the places that touched me. I no longer yearned to see everything and experience nothing. Was I shedding that aspect of societal conditioning that rewarded the visually attractive form of youth? Advertising uses images of the young and the beautiful to convince us to accumulate more and more stuff. In doing so do we amass layers of residue that separate us from our pristine essence? The towering, ancient, rugged, craggy, heart-stirring Karakorum monoliths surrounding me mirrored the profound beauty of the lean and wrinkled centenarians still walking in their shadows. Were these barren rocky giants serving to strip me bare and leave me naked, pure and vulnerable, like a new-born child? Is this why I had come to the mountains and to this alpine desert in particular? Is this why Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert? Is this why spiritual aspirants over the ages have headed to the mountains, drawn like bees to honey, seeking the nectar of the gods? So many travelers race from one superficial visit to the next, accumulating destinations like baseball cards, rather than deeply experiencing them. I realized that I was no longer part of the ‘I’ve been to Bali, too’ crowd. This was a backwards journey now, back to the roots of existence, from the superficial to the sublime, from the conditioned and the tainted to the Absolute and the pure.
Rick had been on the road for a long time and was beginning to question the meaning of the ceaseless travel he had undertaken. Together, we enjoyed eating the Hunza fruits of the season. Incredible local cherries had finished the week before, but now Rick and I tasted the most exquisite dark mulberries during a long afternoon walk. Apricots were beginning to ripen and grapes and apples would soon follow.
One morning Rick and I talked about fate and the seeming coincidences that, when followed in faith, lead us from one pertinent adventure to the next. I spoke of all the signs pointing me to New Mexico. Just the day before I was writing a letter to Lucia in Holland and I noticed for the first time the address that Bill had written in my address book during our auspicious meeting in the restaurant in Kathmandu: Rancho Allegre Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico. At that time Bill spoke of living in an amazing place in the American South West, but I had not noted then just where that place was.
I expounded to Rick on my theory that these guiding coincidences seem to happen when we quite spontaneously choose to do something outside our normal routine.
At the end of our hours long discussion Rick was still skeptical about all this ‘New Age’ theorizing. I asked him what he would like to do.
Rick thought for a moment and then said, “How about a little walk?”
“Sure,” I replied. After all that sitting and talking a walk seemed a splendid idea.
“And what I’d really like,” Rick continued, “is some cherries. It’s too bad they’re no longer available.”
“Let’s go see,” I said with a twinkle in my eye.
We set off at a good pace and were soon beyond the village on a trail leading between terraced paddocks. Young healthy barley plants bent softly to the tickling wind. The first potatoes were blooming, little white and purple solanum buds decorating the terraces. This wasn’t just a place for growing food; this was a stepped garden of beauty and delight. We were alone but not lonely under the midday sun. The mountains, trees, herbs and flowers kept mute company. Presumably people were enjoying lunch or a siesta away from the crescendo of the summer heat.
Suddenly a middle-aged Hunza man sprang out of nowhere with a plate in his hands. I didn’t recognize him. He handed the dish to us, a big smile on his face. The white and worn porcelain plate was full of cherries! We smiled with gratitude to him, looked at each other with incredulity, and did the only thing the moment demanded—we ate the cherries, slowly savoring each luscious, perfectly ripe orb.
“Wow. That was pretty amazing,” said Rick. “I wonder if he has any more?”
“Let’s go see,” I agreed. This seemed an opportunity too good to miss.
We found the man, handed him back his plate, and used creative sign language to ask if we could purchase some more cherries. Once he caught our meaning, the man stepped inside his home and soon returned with a bag filled with more of the perfect red orbs he had shared with us before. We paid for them immediately and smiled our thanks to the man. A group of shy children watched our transaction from the safety of a nearby stone wall. We returned nonchalantly to our hotel, each lost in thought over the magic of the simple event that had just occurred.
Counter Clockwise for a Change
That evening, after Rick and I had feasted at our hotel’s restaurant we looked at each other and simultaneously said, “Why don’t we go in the opposite direction for our walk this evening. We can go through the village first and then return along the water channel. Perhaps the fruit and vegetable stall in town will be open.” We both had cherries on our minds. Karimabad had only one fruit and vegetable shop and it was usually closed. Those of us staying in the Hunza for more than a few days periodically journeyed to Gilgit for fresh produce. This was a self sufficient community that didn’t necessarily grow a surplus for the visitors who were beginning to arrive now that the road had improved. Still, it seemed more than a coincidence that Rick and I each had this idea simultaneously, so we set off for town first, beginning our counter clockwise circumambulation.
Sure enough, the veggie stall was closed. Neither of us was surprised. We continued along the main road and within a couple of minutes we encountered a young man whom Rick had met earlier in the day.
“Where are you guys going?” he asked. I recognized his American accent.
“Just for a walk, Jason,” replied Rick in his usual friendly tone.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Not at all,” I responded. It always felt good to share some of the lesser known paths and walks with visitors.
We carried on through the village on the road that neatly bisected the shops and houses. Dusk was upon us but it was still easily light enough to see the way. Within minutes a Western woman walked towards us. She immediately recognized Jason and excitedly exclaimed to him, “How are you doing?”
“Great, Sandra,” he replied. “You can’t help but enjoy a place like this.”
It turned out that they had met the previous week in Kashgar. She asked if she could join us and we all responded affirmatively. Rick happened to mention to her about my plans to go to Santa Fe in New Mexico, perhaps to study Chinese medicine.
“You may not believe this,” Sandra said. “But I’ve just graduated from one of the Chinese medical schools in Santa Fe! I’ve been in China to observe, assist and learn from experienced Chinese doctors and to gain practical experience.”
For the remaining forty minutes of our walk Rick caught up with Jason and I gleaned useful information about Santa Fe and Chinese medical studies from our new friend. It was dark when we returned to our respective hotels. Rick and I settled into chairs for our nightly stargazing session.
“That was quite a day,” said Rick in his dry, laconic Mid-Western manner. “I now have no doubt that you will indeed be going to Santa Fe.”
“Did you see that when we acted spontaneously out of our ordinary routine by going in the opposite direction for our walk that the coincidences happened?” I asked.
“Sure did,” replied Rick. “If we had gone in our usual direction we wouldn’t have bumped into Jason. It was too bad about the fruit and vegetable stall being closed, though.”
“That would have been icing on the cake.” I laughed. “You can see that thinking of the veggie stall was important because it got us to act out of our established routine. If we hadn’t seen Jason we in turn would not have met Sandra. We would probably just have said hello to her as we passed.”
“Yes. Really.” Rick warmed up to the discussion. “What are the chances in this remote place of meeting someone from one of the two schools you are considering attending? You heard what she said. These are little schools. She was one of only fourteen graduates this past year. And to think this chain of events would happen the very day that we discussed coincidences and Santa Fe. It’s more than a little uncanny, John.”
“There are no coincidences, Rick,” I stated.
“I’m beginning to believe that, John. Hey, what do you think you will find in Santa Fe?”
“Time will tell,” I responded, continuing to gaze contentedly at the crystalline firmament above us. “Time will tell. There is one thing I wonder about, Rick.”
“What is that?”
“I wonder if they grow cherries in New Mexico.”
One day, when Buddha was delivering a sermon, he merely held up a flower and said nothing. All his disciples were baffled except one named Mahakasyapa, who smiled, showing that he understood the meaning of Buddha’s gesture. This, according to an ancient legend, was the beginning of Zen.
Dr. Gary D. Guthrie, The Wisdom Tree¹
ey Alex,” I called. “Where can I go for a few days where I can be completely alone?”
Rick had moved on to Kashgar with the intent of making an attempt at entering Tibet. Karimabad was hardly crawling with tourists, but I felt the urge to sleep under the stars and commune more closely with nature. Alex had recently lent me some of his Zen books and I had been captivated and inspired by them. Perhaps their message of simplicity had triggered this desire for solitude.
I handed Alex’s books back to him. He was dressed in a long sleeved navy cotton shirt, a vest and yet another of his ever-present colorful scarves. Alex certainly had a unique fashion sense. He was almost a throwback to the earlier days of European mountain guides.
1. Guthrie, Dr. Gary D. 1997, The Wisdom Tree, Ocean Tree
Books, Santa Fe, NM. With kind permission of the publisher.
“Did the books foster this sudden interest in solitude, John?” Alex’s question was uncannily perceptive.
“I suppose they did. What does Zen mean to you, Alex?”
“For some Zen is a religion. For me, it’s a way of life. For others it’s almost an art form. It’s the stories that teach me so much. That’s why I bring these books to the mountains.”
“You mean like the story of the two monks who find the beautiful young woman in a long kimono trying to cross the stream?”
“Yes, that one. Don’t you love it? The first monk carries her across the stream and gently sets her down on the other side. Leaving her safely there, the two monks walk further. But the second monk grows increasingly agitated. When he finally confronts the first monk by saying that they’re not supposed to make contact with women, the first monk makes what I call a very Zen-like comment.”
“You mean where he says something like, ‘You’re still carrying her in your mind. I left her back at the water’s edge?’”
“That’s it. A story like that can be read over and over. It has been said that if you have Zen in your life, you have no doubts and no fears, no unnecessary cravings and no extreme emotions. You serve humanity humbly, fulfilling your presence in this world with loving kindness and observing your passing as a petal falling from a flower.”
“It sounds simple, Alex. Is it?”
“I suppose so. Like the monk, we need to stay in the moment, in the present. The Hunzas do this naturally. They don’t need any books. But for us a little solitude can help. I often sleep alone in the mountains when I don’t have clients.”
“I certainly don’t have clients, Alex.” We laugh. “Where would you suggest I go to sleep alone in the mountains?”
“I have to go to see the headman of a little village north of here the day after tomorrow. I am going there to get some porters for the clients who are due to arrive soon. This couple wants to do quite an extended trek in the mountains so I will need some help.
“Would you like to join me? We can sleep at the headman’s house and then you can head up to the meadows above the village for a few days to hang out and explore. I’ll come back here after the first night. You could return to the village when you are ready and then make your way back to the Karakorum Highway. If you time it right you could then catch a minibus back here.”
“Sounds good,” I replied. I trusted and respected Alex greatly. I was sure that his suggestion would be a good one. The next day I procured enough dried fruit, nuts, vegetables and bread to see me through my quest; a quest that I hoped would help me to empty my cup a little more of accumulated beliefs and conditioning.
Alex had arranged for a lift in one of the village jeeps so it took only a bumpy hour to reach our destination. Alex introduced me to the headman who kindly offered his flat roof for us to sleep on. After a simple meal of dried fruit and nuts, Alex and I rolled out our sleeping bags onto the rooftop. Electricity had not reached this village and the moon was not yet visible so it was reasonably dark. Only the stars cast their glittering glow on our night time abode.
“John. There is something I would like to share with you,” Alex said, sounding a little hesitant.
“Sure. Go ahead,” I answered, curious.
“You’re not like the other travelers I see that come here. You stay with a different intention, it would seem,” Alex went on.
“That’s probably true, Alex. I love this place and these people. I just want to understand it all and myself a little better.”
His nod was barely perceptible in the pitch-dark of the rooftop.
“I’m concerned,” he continued. “As you know I’ve been coming here for five years and I’ve always been so impressed with the tremendous respect the Hunzas have for nature. They truly acknowledge the spirit of nature in everything they do.”
“You know that place with the three trees beside the stream on the way up to the upper meadow at the base of Altit Peak?”
“Yes,” I replied. I knew the place well. I frequently rested there in the shade of one of those trees after the steep and strenuous climb up from Karimabad. It was an enchanting spot to read, write, or meditate. There was a little patch of grass on which I often spread my Balinese blanket before settling down for a picnic. A shepherd occasionally passed by, but otherwise I usually had this natural, open air temple to myself. The mountain walls rose steep and cliff-like on both sides, creating a sort of highland cathedral. The glacial stream, which later fed the water channels of three Hunza villages, whispered and sang its sweet melodies as it tumbled over giant boulders on its gravity-driven plunge. This little glade lay adjacent to the path leading up to a summer meadow. Rick and I had hiked to this remote meadow the previous week. Two shepherds had invited us in to their hut. We had joined them in the dim interior of their rustic abode, half buried between the giant boulders of a glacial moraine. They shared with us some of their fermented yoghurt-like drink while one of them steadily churned more milk in an animal bladder.
“As I’ve told you before, these mountains are really an alpine desert,” Alex’s words interrupted my musings. He continued, “In such an environment every tree is important. And nearly every tree has been planted with painstaking attention by generations of local people.
“With the sudden increase in the number of visitors since the completion of the Karakorum Highway has come a transformation in the valley, especially in Karimabad. It’s the only Hunza village that most tourists visit. More guest houses and restaurants have been built which has increased the demand for wood for fuel.
“Through the planting of quick growing species such as poplars the Hunzas have been able to generate enough wood for fuel and building for centuries.”
Alex’s words caused me to reflect on the construction of a house I had observed in Altit the previous week. The walls were constructed of stacked rocks that were later sealed with a mud plaster. Whole peeled poplar beams supported the roof.
Alex continued his story, “But now gas and kerosene are used for cooking in some houses and restaurants and wood is being brought up from Gilgit and beyond.
“A couple of days ago I was shocked to see that one of those three willows beside the stream had been cut down, probably for fuel. A few years ago this would never have happened. But contact with tourists and with other Pakistanis from further south seems to have detrimentally influenced some of the younger Hunza men.
“I went and spoke with some of the village elders yesterday because I’m pretty sure I know who did this,” Alex persisted, somewhat passionately. He had my full attention even though I could see little more than a vague outline of him in the gloom. His voice was more than adequate in purveying the gravity of his words and emotion. “But the elders didn’t feel there was anything they can do without any real evidence.”
Alex’s voice softened, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I’m concerned that the nature spirits are going to retaliate.”
“What do you mean, Alex?” I asked, a little perplexed.
“Well you know from what you’ve heard of Findhorn in Scotland that some people can very clearly and intentionally communicate with devas and nature spirits. These are the architects and builders of form. The Hunzas have been taught by and worked with Nature in this way for a very long time. How else could they have created such a paradise in an otherwise forbidding land?” Alex’s voice cracked with obvious concern.
“And now one of the Hunzas has betrayed Nature by cutting this tree. This is an unprecedented incident. I have a very uneasy feeling about this,” Alex finished.
There wasn’t much for me to say. We rested in silence for a few minutes, lost in thought. I sensed that Alex felt better having got this off his chest. I, however, now also felt concern. Why is it that this thing we so often hear called progress has so many subtle but noticeable negative implications? I was a visitor to this paradise. I ate meals in the local restaurants and read by the light of kerosene lamps. I was also responsible for the development that was so swiftly altering a precious way of life and people.
Alex spoke a little about the upcoming trek he was soon to guide and then fell fast asleep under the faint starlight. I lay awake for awhile until the pristine mountain air lured me into a deep slumber.
The following morning Alex left to find some porters and I walked into the high meadows above the village. I found a reasonably horizontal spot near a stream and put down my gear before meandering off on a restful reconnoiter of the area. My thoughts repeatedly returned to Alex’s words of the previous night.
The next days were spent simply enjoying the mountains and my solitude. I did not wander far. One day a couple of village children watched me from a distance, curious about this stranger sleeping outside above their village. I didn’t cook. I subsisted comfortably enough on the raw rations and bread I had brought with me. My thirst was sated by the nearby stream. This was a desolate, rocky and steep landscape. Aside from the brief visit of the children I was quite alone. I didn’t see any animals save for a few small rodents, long-tail marmots, I believe, and birds. The snow leopard, the elusive big cat of the central Asian mountains, remained elusive. Just as well.
After some days I was ready to return to my little hotel room in Karimabad, so I hiked back to the village before making the precipitous descent to the valley floor where the Karakoram Highway roughly paralleled the river. I didn’t need to wait long to catch a ride back to the village that straddled the river below Karimabad. From there I enjoyed the steep, familiar climb up to my hotel. I was joined by a couple of travelers who came off the same minibus. I helped one of them, a small Dutch woman, carry her heavy backpack up the sinuous track. It wasn’t difficult to see why the Hunzas are so lean. One couldn’t go far in this environment without making a strenuous climb. These two travelers had just arrived in the Hunza for the first time, coming from Kashgar over the Khunjerab Pass. They accompanied me to my hotel, where I helped them get rooms.
Because I had by now spent so much time in the Hunza, word soon got around that I was the person to ask about local information, especially concerning the plethora of walks that were possible in the area. I often guided visitors on hikes. Rick and I had enjoyed a couple of particularly long treks, in one case sleeping on the mountainside high above the village before returning the next day.
Marja, the young Dutch woman I had helped out the previous day on the climb up from the river, after hearing of my overnight hike with Rick, asked me if I would take her up into the mountains for an overnight stop. She was intrigued by my enthusiasm about the Hunza and wanted to experience the locality ‘closer to the earth’. I agreed to help her.
We had an early evening meal at the hotel restaurant, purchased a package of biscuits for a treat, and then headed off with only backpacks, sleeping bags and sleeping mats. The place I had in mind was an hour’s steep climb away. We crossed over the stream that tumbled down from the shepherds’ hut and followed a narrow, twisting trail up to a small leveled-off area just above the highest terraces over Altit. There was one small tree under which we rolled out our sleeping bags and mats. This was one of my favorite spots. I often sat in the shade of this willow during the day and occasionally met farmers working nearby plots or small teams of men who maintained the water channels. These people would join me under the tree for a brief respite from their labors.
It was soon dark and we delighted in the arrival of the night sky. Despite being only an hour’s walk above the village the stars seemed even closer than from down below. We could discern a few faint, flickering lights far below in the village of Altit. Karimabad was hidden from view but the back of Baltit Fort could be seen, balanced on its imposing hilltop reigning over both villages. The portion of the cliffside channel carrying precious water to these villages and adjoining farms was across the same ravine that contained the recently felled willow Alex had spoken of. Aside from the muffled rumble of a distant stream all was silent.
I opened up my backpack to get out the package of biscuits. Ever since my days of tramping in the rain in New Zealand I had carried a pack liner that looked for all the world like an oversized, thick orange garbage bag. Everything I wanted to keep absolutely dry went into this pack liner. Now, as I extracted the biscuit package from my bag, every piece of plastic I contacted turned a luminescent green. The same glowing light materialized when I tore open the plastic packaging containing the biscuits. We were astonished.
I experimented by running the tips of my fingers along the pack liner. Green tracks of light momentarily appeared and then faded away. By now it was completely dark and moonless so the eerie green lines were all that we could see. I was fascinated and curious. Marja was equally fascinated and a little nervous. We snacked on biscuits.
Marja asked, “What do you think the cause of the green light is?”
“I don’t know. I have never seen anything like it,” I replied. “Perhaps it’s a visible form of static electricity,” I speculated further. I felt positively excited. I wondered if something mystical was happening.
And then, as if to add to the mystery of this already unusual night, an immense beam of white light suddenly burst soundlessly from the mountainside far above us. It was as if some giant was shining his gigantic flashlight from his cave home in the mountain. I was bedazzled and so was Marja.
“What’s that?” I asked, barely above a whisper.
“Don’t ask me,” blurted Marja, in an awed and slightly strained tone.
“I’m sure there is nothing to be afraid of,” I reassured her. “After all it’s only a huge beam of light.” If I felt excited before, I was absolutely exhilarated now. It was as if an unknown part of our world had quite suddenly and unexpectedly been revealed to us and I rejoiced in the newness of it. To me, there was nothing threatening about these lights. In my eyes, they were simply fascinating. I felt like a country boy seeing the lights of the city for the first time. Only these lights were in the country. There seemed no logical reason for their existence, but seeing is believing.
I stared up at the light, transfixed, wracking my brains for an explanation for this phenomenon, when the beam vanished, as suddenly as it had appeared.
Marja was clearly unsettled. She spent a few minutes talking about her upbringing and then about the help she had received in recent years from a hypnotist. He had helped her to see how she had legitimately developed certain behaviors in response to perceived threats in her childhood. With these threats losing their relevance as she entered adulthood, the behaviors were no longer necessary, but they persisted, having become unconscious habits. Over a period of time she grew to really trust this man. He was able to take her, through hypnosis, back to the original events. She was then in a position to understand the behaviors and, subsequently, let them go. This, in turn, led to her present ability to be more free to make fresh choices like this trip that brought her, with me, to this remote, peaceful place. I wondered how much behavior I had that was no longer relevant. We are all conditioned by our experiences. How many of our reactions are automatic and how many are truly conscious and come only from what is happening in the present moment?
The night grew cooler. It was time for bed. We crawled into our respective sleeping bags under the willow tree. I was soon immersed in a deep and dreamless sleep.
The morning sun caressed my cheek and I opened my eyes. Marja lay cocooned in her sleeping bag, looking at me.
“How did you sleep?” I asked.
“Not very well,” she responded, grumbling a little. “I couldn’t get to sleep for hours. There was a woman singing up there,” she said, pointing to the rock strewn slope above us. It was a bit hard to imagine someone choosing to sit out there for a midnight carol.
A funny thought struck me. “She wasn’t yodeling, was she?” I asked.
Marja failed to the see the humor in this and gave me a biting stare. “All I know is that the voice was definitely not coming from the village. There weren’t even any lights down there. I was frightened and I didn’t sleep much.”
I felt for Marja. She was obviously tired and distraught. It was probably a case of too many new sensory experiences at once. She would need time to digest them. I have to say that I was still buzzing from the events of the previous night but I was a wee bit disappointed in having missed the night time song. I looked down the valley towards Mount Rakiposhi. Its enormous glacial face was bathed in a gorgeous golden light. What a magnificent way to start the day, I thought.
Suddenly, Marja sat up. “I think it’s going to rain,” she exclaimed.
“I doubt it. It never rains here,” I replied. In all my months in the Hunza I had never experienced rain.
“But look!” she motioned towards Rakiposhi in the south-west.
Sure enough, an angry, gray, swirling mass of thunder clouds emerged through a cleft in the mountains to the west. As we watched, this hell-bent tempest surged towards us. We sat stunned, glued to the spot. It happened so fast that we didn’t even think of rolling up our sleeping bags and stuffing them into our rucksacks. In almost no time we were engulfed in a raging thunderstorm. Instantly we and our sleeping bags were drenched. We huddled together under the tree, our only meager protection. We were rocked with a resounding crack. Thor himself must have been involved in this frenzy. The sky lit up and we looked up in time to see a jagged fork of lightning pierce the water channel where it hugged the cliffside opposite us. The water channel immediately exploded at this point of impact and its contents plummeted down the vertical flank, adding to the rapidly swelling stream below.
“That’s Karimabad and Altit’s water supply!” I cried, my voice barely audible above the surrounding din. I immediately thought of Alex’s recent warning. It looked like Nature’s retribution was indeed upon these humble villagers.
The rain continued to lash down and rivulets of streaming water appeared in every cleft on the impermeable hillside.
“We’d better leave immediately for the village while the stream remains crossable,” I called to Marja.
“Good idea,” she yelled in response. “I don’t want to stay here.” She grabbed her pack and got started, needing no further encouragement. I grabbed my bag and reached down to pick up our sleeping bags. I hesitated. For some inexplicable reason I felt compelled to leave the saturated bags where they were. I wiped rain from my eyes and hurried to catch up with Marja. The stream was just crossable, with the surging white water lapping at the rustic bridge. Making our way carefully over, we passed a small group of Hunza men with picks and shovels headed up the ravine, presumably to survey the damage. The last part of the walk to the village was straightforward enough, so I let my thoughts range back to the chain of events leading up to this storm. I found it more than coincidental that Alex had expressed his concerns to me about the tree being cut just days before, and that we chose to be in the only place where it was possible to see the lightning strike the water channel. The point of impact wouldn’t have been visible to people in the nearest villages and it was too early in the day for anyone to be attending to their gardens in the area where we had slept.
Back at the hotel we changed into dry clothes and warmed up with cups of tea. It was still raining but the full force of the storm had dissolved, as if its purpose had been fulfilled. We sat sheltered under the cover of the veranda, explaining to other travelers what had transpired. I would have liked to speak with Alex but he was off trekking with his clients and wasn’t due back for two weeks. The town’s water supply had dried up and Mansour told me he didn’t recall this ever happening before.
By midday the rain had completely stopped and the sun was attempting to break through the lingering clouds. It was far more humid than I had ever encountered in the valley. There was a strange opaque quality to the atmosphere. It almost felt sad and the melancholy was affecting me.
Late in the afternoon Karimabad was still without water. I decided, somewhat reluctantly, to retrieve the sleeping bags Marja and I had earlier abandoned. Hopefully the sun had done its best to dry them. I decided out of curiosity to go via Altit to see what effect the storm had had there, before looping up to our previous night’s sleeping location. I soon found that I couldn’t reach Altit because the main bridge had been knocked out by the flooded stream. Men were already industriously attempting to rebuild it. I scampered upwards adjacent to the stream, searching in vain for a place to cross. The little bridge we had earlier used was also gone and the swollen stream acted as a barrier. I finally managed to traverse the watercourse just above the place where the broken water channel was dropping its load of water into the turbulent current. There would be no way for the local men to repair the broken cliffside sluice until they found a way to temporarily divert its flow somewhere higher up, perhaps near where the willow had been slashed down. There the stream and the water channel flowed close to each other.
I clambered up the last portion of the trail, ready for a break after my long and circuitous route. In total, the climb had taken more than one-and-a-half hours. The largest branch of the willow tree, directly over our outstretched sleeping bags, had snapped and now lay on the ground, covering the crumpled sacks. I managed to drag the bags out from under the branch. They were still saturated. Ordinarily I would have sat and rested for a spell before returning to the village. Not this time. There was a very unfriendly, almost hostile, feeling about the place. I rolled up my cargo, stuffed it in my backpack, and immediately departed. What was Nature saying?